Review: An Ideal Husband by Austin Shakespeare
by Michael Meigs
The conventional staging of Oscar Wilde, within the frame of a proscenium, gives us a bright window into the highly mannered scene of London's Victorian upper classes.
For Austin Shakespeare's An Ideal Husband in the Long Center's Rollins Theatre, the audience surrounds the stage. This staging in-the-square gives us a visual kaleidoscope of witty epigrams, paradoxes, brilliant costumes and exquisitely good manners.
There's a technical challenge here, since at any given moment an actor will be standing with his or her back to a quarter of the audience. Anne Ciccolella's direction keeps the actors moving, in Copernican fashion, and the gifted young cast from the UT Theatre Department subtly adjusts position throughout.
Every spectator has a different view of the play, necessarily missing some portion of facial or corporal expression. But stage business is full, diction and accent are at a high level, and vocal characterizations are rich. No part of the audience is short changed.
Advocates of theatre in the round often assert that it creates a closer community of audience as spectator reactions are exchanged across the playing space. The playing space in the Rollins is broad, however, and I found little of that effect. Concentrating on Wilde's words and characters, one easily loses the spectator background.
Beneath the wit and banter of An Ideal Husband, deeply serious outcomes are at risk. Sir Robert Chiltern's political career is in the ascendent. His sister Miss Mabel has set her cap for the brilliant but still noncommittal Lord Goring. Goring's crotchety father Lord Caversham insists upon choosing a spouse for the young man. Into this world comes the amoral, enormously wealthy Mrs. Cheveley of Vienna, threatening the blackmail ruination of one promising aristocrat and the matrimonial ruination of another.
An Ideal Husband is a vivid portrait of a bygone world and age. Wilde, the son of an impoverished Irish aristocrat, an extravagant self-promoter, longed to secure a place in that world. Five years after the 1895 success of this play, he had been disgraced, judged, jailed and was dying at the age of 46, an exile in Paris. The brilliance of the idle life of the British upper classes was largely ended by the Great War of 1914 - 1918.
It's fun to psychoanalyze the piece, seeing it as Wilde's self-promoting joke on that beau monde. For example, the foppish Lord Goring, who is a patent stand-in for Wilde, proves wittier and more effective than any of the other characters. Director Anne Ciccolella recounted another insight in the Q&A after the preview night: much of the tension of the piece is created by the anguish of Sir Robert over a hidden crime in his youth that can alienate the affections of his morally absolutist, adoring wife, Lady Chiltern. Wilde himself had recently married well and was presumably concealing from his wife the homosexuality that would soon ruin him.
The plot is that of a relatively conventional London stage melodrama of the time, with much of the action revolving around letters sent, not destroyed, stolen or misdirected. Sir Robert (Mark Scheibmeir, left) and Lady Chiltern (Sydney Andrews, lead photo above), are a relatively unsurprising married pair, and his exemplary political career seems based more on championing of morality and principal rather than on eloquence.
Lord Caversham (Robert Tolaro, right), constantly annoyed by his son, and the sententious gossip Lady Markby (Janelle Buchanan) are relatively predictable caricatures of the blindly self-important upper class.
Shaun Patrick Tubbs (left) as the Wilde surrogate Lord Goring (above, right) does not have the bulk or the drawling dismissiveness one might conventionally expect. Instead, he is a lithe, cocky smiling fellow ready to mimic and mock his absurd old Pater but also quick to prove steadfast concern both for his friend Robert and for Robert's lady wife.
Ah, but the villainesse! Verity Branco as the spider lady Mrs. Cheveley (center) is beautiful and coolly efficient. With high cheekbones, perfect diction and a decisiveness betrayed in a measured strut, she is the antithesis of the polite goody-goody world of society. She lives abroad for good reason -- having been expelled from boarding school for stealing, she went on to wed and use up two husbands before lanching into the dubious but highly successful collaboration with a now-deceased European baron. Branco's vigor is captivating and her diction is as precise as a stiletto.
At the opposite end of the female spectrum is the ingenue Miss Mabel. Marlane Barnes bubbles with flirtatious mischief. Her tippy-toeing rushes across the stage manifest a fine sense of physical comedy, all the more comic because of the constraints of society and corsets. Her exquisite nonsense suggests that she does, indeed, share Lord Goring's non-jaded joy for things fine; one can imagine that she will some day become exquisitely scandalous while loving him always to excess . . . a promise of Bloomsbury, a decade or more before those lovely libertines were to flourish.
Wilde has a message -- approximately, "We men adore women for their imperfections but you women will insist on putting your men on a pedestal, obliged to perfection."
Those intent on seeking modern day relevance might force the matter by referring to recent scandals of political life, but I would not take that reading of the tea leaves from this aromatic cup. An Ideal Husband succeeds for what it is -- a witty send-up of conventional melodrama and of the differences between men and women.
Comment posted on van Ryzin's review, February 24: "It is a unique opportunity to bring our performance work off-campus and into the Austin community. The experience for our students is rich and rare as they enjoy a three-week run in a classic play housed in the exquisite Long Center for the Performing Arts. This collaboration seems very right. Hook ‘em! Lucien Douglas, Associate Professor of Theatre & Dance"
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