Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Nicely conceived A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE pleases at The Shaw

Oscar Wilde is one of Britain’s best known turn of the century authors.  He is the writer of the theater masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and the much praised, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

Wilde satirized English upper class society.  Often filled with biting satire, his writings also concerned decadence, duplicity and beauty.

His A Woman of No Importance showcases his talent as a writer of comedy and tragedy.  It parallels, in some ways, Wilde’s own life.  A lover of young beauty, especially youthful males, he idealized the best of society.  He loved being the center of attention, whether through sporting fancy clothing or being seen with beautiful people. 

Because of losing a lawsuit which centered on his contending he was slandered when the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, accused him of gross indecency with men, he went to jail for two years, lost his societal standing and wealth, and eventually died a pauper, almost forgotten, at a young age.

A Woman of No Importance
, referred to as Wilde’s “weakest play,” because of its structure.  The first act-and-a-half reflects witty conversations of members of the upper-class, and the drama, the message of the play, is shoe-horned into the last half of the second act. 

The play was written to take place in “the present,” 1894.  Eda Holmes, Shaw’s director, chose to set it in 1951, the year that, in Britain,  the Conservatives ousted the Labor government.  Both the late 1800s and the 1950s were periods that were highlighted by society having “the power to make or break the individual.”  As it mattered little to the meaning of the play, her choice may have been nothing more than to give a chance to showcase the Dior styled costumes that populated the stage.

The majority of the first act centers on Lady Caroline Pontefract and American visitor, Hester Worsley, gossiping, learning that Lord Arbuthnot, a powerful political figure, may be appointing Gerald Arbuthnot as his secretary, and discussing that Lord Illingworth wanted to be a foreign ambassador.  Gerald offers to take Hester for a walk, Lady Hunstanton and Lady Stutfield share observations about Hester’s background and wealth.  You get it…much ado about nothing.  But, due to Wilde’s way with words, the goings on are fun.

The wrinkle in the fabric comes when Mrs. Arbuthnot sends a note that she is coming to the party.  A question comes as to who she is.  The response, “A woman of no importance.”

But, of importance she is, as we find out that Mrs. Arbuthnot is Gerald’s mother, and Gerald is the illegitimate son of Lord Illingworth. When it is revealed to Gerald who his father is, he insists it is the duty of Mrs. Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth to get married.  And, we finally have the dramatic segment of the script which leaves the audience to consider whether the marriage will take place.  Fear not, Mrs. Arbuthnot decides that Lord Illingworth is a “man of no importance.”

The story is weak, but Wilde’s writing is not.  The dialogue is filled with bon mots.  Included are:  “Nothing spoils romance so much as a sense of humor in the woman.”  “To get into the best society, nowadays, one has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people - that is all!”  “The happiness of a married man depends on the people he has not married.” “No woman should have a memory. Memory in a woman is the beginning of dowdiness. One can always tell from a woman's bonnet whether she has got a memory or not.”  And, one of the most quoted lines from the script, “Duty is what one expects from others, it is not what one does oneself.”

The Shaw production is nicely conceived.  The sarcasm, the wit, is present, the pacing such that the attention is kept, and the fact that the tale is shallow becomes secondary to the writer’s cleverness, which flows from his characters.

The Dior costumes are elegant, the incidental music helps set the mood, and the acting excellent.

Capsule judgment:  Though A Woman of No Importance is not of the quality of some of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s other comedy of manners plays which satirize English upper society, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, there is enough going for this production, including quality acting, nicely timed laughs, beautiful costumes, and original music, to strongly recommend it.

A Woman of No Importance
is presented in the Festival Theatre through October 22 at The Shaw Festival and is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his writing contemporaries.  The Shaw has been dubbed “One of the great repertory theaters in the English-speaking world.”

For theatre information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com.