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Forget Father’s Day: It’s motherhood—and womanhood—under the microscope on local stages this month. The Shakespeare Theatre considers an uncommonly indirect brand of maternal solicitude in its latest dalliance with Oscar Wilde, staging a Lady Windermere’s Fan so exuberantly swank that “splendiferous” and other such giddinesses are the only reasonable response. Across the river in Crystal City, meanwhile, the Washington Shakespeare Company wraps its arms around Euripides’ Medea and pulls her in close for an intimate, minimalist take on one of Greek tragedy’s most endlessly perplexing figures. Seen back to back, the two very different plays and their two very different authors seem alike in this, at least: Whether it’s late-Victorian London or early Corinth that they’re struggling to survive in, their women are forced to damage themselves as they pursue the dignity of direct action.
Wilde was a celebrated classicist, of course, so while Medea wasn’t a direct model for anyone in Lady Windermere, she can’t have been far from his mind as he put the play together. It does, after all, involve a woman outraged to the point of self-injury by the idea of her husband’s well-publicized infidelity—by the implications, more to the point, of such an infidelity for her sense of herself. Still, this is a comedy, Wilde’s first big success, and it’s more concerned with the epigrammatic than the epic, as interested in style as in substance. O happy we, then, that while it delivers no end of the former, Keith Baxter’s effortlessly elegant production still finds time for no little of the latter.
Tessa Auberjonois, the naive coquette in Baxter’s similarly posh production of The Rivals last season, returns as the title character, so poised and charming you almost don’t mind discovering the prudery that sets her on the road to ruin. At barely 21, a rich nobleman’s wife and already a mother, Wilde’s Lady Windermere is the sheltered product of privilege, but she thinks she knows the world well enough to distinguish good from bad. “I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal,” she tells another character early on—but events, of course, are already conspiring to make her confront not just a scarlet woman but the prospect of becoming one herself.
The woman of such importance is Mrs. Erlynne, who has surfaced on the edges of London society determined, with an assist from Lady Windermere’s husband, to get back into it. Turns out Lord Windermere has been writing Mrs. Erlynne large checks and paying regular visits to the town house his money has bought her—both conclusive bits of evidence, in the Windermeres’ rarefied and highly regimented world, of an impropriety Lady Windermere never imagined she’d have to bear. One of Wilde’s chief targets, once the audience understands that neither Mrs. Erlynne nor her relationship to the Windermeres is quite what everyone assumes, is the hypocritical distance between the appearances society demands and the behaviors it accepts, as long as they’re kept neatly under wraps. Another, at which he aims several of his choicest rhetorical arrows, is the Victorian double standard that labeled straying men as merely disreputable, while forever writing off the women they stray with as ruined.
Baxter’s remarkably solid cast—it’s a big show, with 26 actors onstage at the artfully choreographed curtain call—puts all this and more across with admirable clarity. If it seems as if Dixie Carter is showboating a bit when her Mrs. Erlynne first shows up, for instance, look again: Her outsize mannerisms are the for-public-consumption posturings of a woman who knows she’s not welcome at the birthday ball and who’s determined to brazen it out anyway. Carter comes through, in a later and rather more private scene, with the honest emotion that completes a convincingly rounded portrayal of a fascinating creature: a woman at once hard enough to engineer her own comeback in an unforgiving society and human enough to sacrifice it all when another woman seems ready to stumble as she did.
Auberjonois likewise humanizes a character whose education, on the day she comes officially of age, involves painful lessons in humility and charity, and Andrew Long does wonderfully subtle things with posture and intonation as Lord Windermere, whose initially charitable instincts calcify as the play goes on into something like his wife’s original inflexibility. Clever Wilde: In keeping the entire truth from everyone except Mrs. Erlynne, he sets up a situation in which all his characters are forced to confront their best and worst instincts—and forces the audience to identify with the wise and worldly perspective of the lady in red.
Of course, today’s audiences don’t need nearly as much forcing as Wilde’s would have; we’re with Mrs. Erlynne from the start, and we delight in the light cynicism of her take on things. Lord Darlington (Matthew Greer, at once entertainingly flippant and dangerously intense) and Cecil Graham (blithely mischievous Gregory Wooddell) may be more conspicuously dandyish, but like them, Mrs. Erlynne is Wilde’s voice making itself heard, and his voice is one we’re ready to identify with; all three characters understand the hollowness of the institutions they pay such strict outward homage to.
Nancy Robinette’s imperiously, deliriously wrongheaded Duchess of Berwick is another character who knows the score, even if she never quite calls it in public. So too, Tonya Beckman Ross’ convulsively funny performance implies, is the duchess’s daughter Lady Agatha, whose Stepford-dutiful compliance turns out to mask a neat escape strategy.
Baxter’s light, sure hand is everywhere gracefully in evidence, from the subtleties that prefigure danger in Lady Windermere’s first-act tête-à-tête with Lord Darlington to the aching distance that yawns between two women just when we’re most anxious for them to connect. And the designers who served him so ably in The Rivals—Robert Perdziola is the costumier, Simon Higlett the set designer—create a world of such impossible gentility and polish that you’re looking for the seams before anyone speaks a line. Wilde, whose skepticism about society was exceeded only by his appetite for its trappings, would be intoxicated.
“I have bound him with oaths of power,” Medea’s inconvenient woman snarls about her faithless husband, and so deadly passionate is Delia Taylor’s title character that you’re perfectly prepared to believe her. But power, or at least earthly authority, is precisely what she lacks, and in their streamlined, minimalist production for the Washington Shakespeare Company, co-directors Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter emphasize the personal dimensions of Euripides’ tragedy even as they underscore the cultural specifics that hem its antiheroine in.
Abandoned by a socially ambitious husband, “disbarred by nature” from anything so manly and direct as revenge, and as isolated as only a foreigner on an island full of xenophobes can be, Medea has no avenues for redress other than those she derides as cowardly—poison for the princess for whom her husband has abandoned his marital bed, infanticide as an indirect strike at the man who’s made her a laughingstock. She seizes them anyway, despising herself for doing it, and her desperate acts of domestic terrorism condemn her to an existence every bit as miserably animal as the one she prophesies for her errant husband. “The rage of my heart is stronger than my reason,” she confesses toward the end of her nightmare spiral, and Euripides confirms our bestial kinship with her in her very next line: “That is the cause of all men’s greatest crimes.”
Carrasquillo and MacWhorter set their Medea in a modern nowhere, with designer Giorgios Tsappas contributing a lacquered scarlet platform ringing a circular pit of sand—an efficient visual metaphor for both Medea’s limited liberty and the limitless, self-feeding nature of her rage. The children are life-size wooden puppets, hauntingly rendered by Marie Schneggenburger, and the ghastliness of the moments leading up to their murder says volumes about the intensity and the interiority of Taylor’s performance.
Jenifer Deal makes a surprisingly appealing Jason—captain of the Argo, hero of the Golden Fleece story, for whom Medea betrayed her own home and family—making deft and believable work of the character’s self-justifications and sparking palpable heat with Taylor in a scene of near reconciliation. And the supporting cast, especially Alexander Strain as one of the watchful chorus’s primary voices and Christopher Henley as the amusingly craven King Creon, contributes mightily (one or two infelicities notwithstanding) to an evening whose tone moves smoothly between black humor and genuine darkness.
Darkness is where Carrasquillo and MacWhorter leave their Medea, too—not for this production the usual deus ex machina in which the sun god carries her beyond the reach of retribution. The lights go down on Taylor’s Medea huddled on the sand with her slaughtered children, her devastated husband, and the horrified chorus all gathered close: bloodied people, all of them, in an impossibly bloody world.CP