by SOPHIE KERMAN
American audiences seem to have a special fascination with the world of the British upper-classes. Whether it is a fixation on the fates of Jane Austen’s characters or an addiction to BBC’s “Downton Abbey,” there is something about the poise and apparent ease with which the British conduct their financial and romantic lives that never ceases to enthrall us. While the Walking Shadow Theatre Company‘s production of Oscar Wilde‘s An Ideal Husband could have been just another charming staging of witty English banter, it is more than just escapism. Highlighting the play’s very real connections to present-day America’s political scandal-mongering, director Amy Rummenie connects An Ideal Husband to the present without cutting its ties to the English manners that we have become so taken with.
Although An Ideal Husband is full of all the witticisms you’d hope for from Oscar Wilde, the subject matter is more serious than you might expect. Sir Robert Chiltern has built his political career on a reputation for morality, when from out of the blue Mrs. Cheveley appears and presents him with a stark choice: either be blackmailed into supporting a plan he finds unconscionable, or allow the public airing of an insider trading deal he was part of in his youth. At stake is not only Chiltern’s political career, but also his marriage to the morally uncompromising Lady Gertrude. In Wilde’s typical style, it is the carefree bachelor Lord Goring who ultimately orchestrates everyone’s happiness (including his own), while punctuating the action with quips such as, “Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious.” (Though unarguably clever, this play is not particularly feminist.)
Because the play has both contemporary resonance and entertainment value, I found myself wondering why Oscar Wilde never gets the sort of modernizing that Shakespeare is so often (perhaps excessively) subjected to. It’s not that the period sets and costumes weren’t delightful to watch - Steve Kath‘s elegant stage design, combined with Amy Hill‘s colorful costumes, created a sense of grace and sophistication that were a pleasure to watch. But as some of the actors struggled with British accents and upper-crust affectations, I got the impression of a costume party rather than fully-realized characterizations.
I should note, however, that despite the occasional difficulty, many of the performances were just delightful. I could watch Maggie Bearmon Pistner‘s Lady Markby gossip all night, and David Beukema played Lord Goring with just the right balance of insouciance and sincere affection for his friends. Sara Ochs and Teresa Marie Doran, as Lady Gertrude Chiltern and Miss Mabel Chiltern, do admirably with rather one-dimensional roles, managing to make both Lady Gertrude’s unflagging uprightness and Miss Mabel’s self-centered flippancy enjoyable to watch. As Sir Robert, Adam Whisner is sympathetic and believable, while Alan Sorenson is oddly appealing as Lord Goring’s straight-laced father.
As an overall effect, though, I found myself wishing that the Walking Shadow would have embraced a modern staging of the play, to go along with their modern interpretive emphasis on the consequences and obligations of love and political life. It seemed to me that many of the actors would have been more comfortable in their own skins, and aside from a few topical references, the characters would certainly not be out of place in elite New York or D.C. social circles. I know that modernizing Oscar Wilde could end up being a complete failure, but if it’s just our love of pretty clothes and British accents that’s holding us back, then maybe it’s worth a shot.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND, by Oscar Wilde. February 10-25, 2012. Walking Shadow Theatre Company, Red Eye Theatre, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: $5-22. Box office: