“If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society would be quite civilized” is only one of the hilarious witticism in Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” now being staged at Taproot Theatre.
“An Ideal Husband” opened in London in 1895, shortly before “The Importance of Being Earnest” and only 4 months before Wilde’s catastrophic arrest which put a stop to his writing career. Like the 1890’s in general “An Ideal Husband” questions the Victorian moral certainties 20 years before World War I, which blew these certainties to Kingdom come.
Although not as tightly or perfectly structured a play as Wilde’s masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “An Ideal Husband” expresses the same themes of moral ambiguity, closeted secrets, the deceptive nature of appearances, as well as the paradoxical nature of triviality and earnestness. Using humor to express profound truths about the human condition, unconditional love, marriage and success the play not only superbly entertains, but also enlightens the audience.
The plot revolves around a young Victorian politician, Sir Robert Chiltern who is perceived by all, especially his wife, Lady Chiltern, as an extremely honorable flawless Member of Parliament, who is under 40 and already an Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. Like Wilde himself, there is a guilty secret in his distant past, and a female blackmailer appears and has him by the short and curlies (as they say in less genteel circles) His attempts to deal with the blackmail, aided by his best friend, Lord Goring, and his wife Lady Chiltern constitute a plot straight out of Feydeau.
Technically, the production at Taproot was virtually flawless. The thrust stage is not ideal for a 19th Century play; however through simple creative use of a backdrop, clever arrangement of the set pieces, imagination and excellent use of the space, this production managed to convey the opulence of the era. Except for the riding habit in the last scene, the costumes were exquisite, and well made. The expert tailoring, choice of colors, and adherence to historical accuracy made the costumes delightful, especially Candace Vance’s Lady Chiltern, whose costume, figure and gracefulness conveyed the character’s perfectionist streak.
Not all of the actors could handle the elevated language, linguistic gymnastics and paradoxes of the text. There were two reasons for this; many of the best lines were played for laughs, rather than concentrating on the seriousness or tragedy of the situation, so the humor often fell flat. Secondly, with the exception of Anne Kennedy Brady as Mabel Chiltern, and Joe Monroe as Phipps, Lord Goring’s valet, the actors did not manage to make the lines their own and appeared to struggle with the accent. Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon, two minor characters, made the mistake of using artificially high-pitched voices. Mrs. Cheveley, the blackmailer, played by Nikki Visel, mispronounced her words rather often.
Like most Seattle actors, the accents focused on pronouncing the words differently, rather than on changing the shape of the mouth to a more forward placement, so that the resonance and the intonation pattern would be British. Mabel and Phipps achieved that peculiar British intonation pattern, necessary to make the lines intelligible. Wilde wrote very precisely for this very specific dialect, and without it, the lines at times seemed cumbersome. Lord Goring was rather good, but his performance could have been improved with a more authentic accent.
The two best scenes were the ones between Lord Goring and Sir Robert Chiltern when Sir Robert asks his best friend, Lord Goring for help with the blackmailing Mrs. Chively, who is of course Goring’s ex-fiancé. Since the actors focused on the seriousness of the situation, the humor was at its best. The repartee in the proposal scene between Lord Goring (a clone of Wilde himself) and Mabel Chiltern was not only funny but contained many truths about life, love and marriage.
In spite of the less than perfect accents and some badly delivered lines, there was enough hilarity in the play and stunning visual beauty in this production to make it both funny and enlightening.
AN IDEAL HUSBAND by Oscar Wilde. Taproot Theatre Company. 204 North 85th St. Seattle, WA 98103 (Greenwood and 85th) Sept. 2 1to Oct. 22. (Wed-Thurs 7:30 pm; Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sat. 2 pm) Directed by Karen Lund. Box office: (206) 781-9705 www.taprootheatre.org