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Sunday, 29 April 2012 22:04

Highly satisfying and delightful 'Lady Windermere's Fan' at Webster Conservatory

Written by Mark Bretz
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Time and again the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University mounts productions that are marvels of excellence.

Guided by an expert faculty, the fabulously talented students in the Conservatory hone their craft in one of the nation’s superior training academies for theater artists, both on stage and behind the scenes.

Twice a year the Conservatory offers productions on the Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus, home of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Each year the Conservatory presents a musical and a play at that venue.

The final production of the Conservatory’s 2011-12 season was a highly satisfying and delightful interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s affecting drama, Lady Windermere’s Fan. It’s always a pleasure to see a new production of one of Wilde’s gems, and this was no exception.

Written by the flamboyant playwright in 1892, Lady Windermere’s Fan deals with the effortsof a stuffy, snobbish aristocrat named Lord Windermere to keep his young wife from learning about her true past. Lady Windermere, a waifish and impressionable lass, believes that her parents both died when she was young. She married Lord Windermere, has a child with him and they share a handsome estate in London.

Lady Windermere also has the affection of a handsome lord appropriately named Darlington. The cocky Darlington confesses his unwavering love for her in a private moment, but is rebuked by the faithful young wife. He does plant a seed of doubt in her mind, however, about her husband’s true intentions, enough for her to rummage through Windermere’s personal effects.

She finds a bank book with several checks written out to a mysterious Mrs. Erlynne. When she confronts Windermere about the payments, he says there is a good explanation. In fact, he wants Mrs. Erlynne invited to their next party. When Lady Windermere declines, her husband extends the invitation himself.

Mrs. Erlynne accepts and creates a bit of a stir upon her arrival, as she is the proprietress for an establishment frequented by several of the men in attendance. As Lady Windermere notices the reaction of the men to the older but still attractive Mrs. Erlynne, she sets in motion a series of controversial events, climaxed when her husband finds the elegant fan he had given his wife for her birthday in the living quarters of Lord Darlington.

Wilde’s writing is always a rich source of witty quotes, and the student players in director Paul Mason Barnes’ delightful production made the most of them. The playwright’s acerbic observations about Victorian mores and the roles assigned to women by the men in their lives offer opportunity for performers who can shape their characterizations around his caustic words.

“Men become old, but they never become good” or “Between women and men no friendship is possible” or “Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality” are just a sampling of the rich dialogue Wilde puts in the mouths of his characters. The Conservatory cast handled those lines with aplomb and accomplishment, from the smallest part to the primary roles, a testament not just to their talents but to the meticulous guidance of Barnes as well as dialect coach Sigrid Sutter. After all, affecting an Australian accent is considerably different from the upper-crust London speech, both of which are displayed here.

Scenic designer Colt Eugene Frank was responsible for the ornate, towering set that aptly represented aristocratic elegance with its massive doors and impressive furniture, as did Ray Kiely’s lavish costumes. Kathy Ruvuna provided a fine classical sound design, Laine Hunkeler added some beautiful touches with wigs and makeup and Katie Stepanek lit everything to accentuate the refinement of the locale.

Sarah Cline belied her youth with a marvelous turn as the mysterious and surprising Mrs. Erlynne, while Kyle Acheson shined as the confident Lord Darlington, whose bravado is dimmed by his impassioned pleas to Lady Windermere. Lexie Tompkins capably handled the role of the troubled title character, while Jake Golliher was appropriately snobbish and self-serving as her husband.

Fine work was in evidence in smaller roles as well, most notably Jonathan Foster as Lord Augustus Lorton, who hopes to make Mrs. Erlynne his latest in a series of wives. Ellen Bryan was the officious Duchess of Berwick and Nyssa Duchow shined as her overshadowed daughter Lady Agatha. Others doing fine work included Jacob Lacopo, Christopher Pratt and Cody Jolly. It should be noted, though, that every one performed admirably. It’s fun, for example, to see the Windermere’s party swell to a handsome group of 18 or so guests, something one can do with the resources of a sizable student ensemble.

Wilde, Barnes and the richly talented students of the Conservatory combined their resources for an engaging and entertaining production, one the master playwright himself may well have enjoyed.

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