Courtesy of SCOTT SUCHMAN
“Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.” These were the words displayed on the curtain and stage of the Shakespeare Theater Company’s March 2011 production of the Oscar Wilde comedy “An Ideal Husband.” Taken from Mary Shelley’s play “Prometheus Unbound,” the mantra provided an ironic backdrop for a production laced with Victorian-era political corruption.
“An Ideal Husband” marks the third Oscar Wilde production put on by the Shakespeare Theater Company, following “A Woman of No Importance” in 1998 and “Lady Windemere’s Fan” in 2005. It tells the story of English politician Sir Robert Chiltern and the unscrupulous Mrs. Cheveley who threatens to reveal his darkest secret if he does not support a bill.
Despite its name, the Shakespeare Theatre Company has a stated mission to give Shakespeare and the classical playwrights he influenced equal treatment in their seasons. “An Ideal Husband” is quite an appropriate choice to this end as its scathingly witty dialogue, mistaken identity tropes and depiction of the upper class gives it the feel of a modern Shakespearean play.
One of the main strengths of past Shakespeare Theater Company productions has been their impressive sets, and “An Ideal Husband” certainly does not break this trend. The action of the play took place predominantly in the sitting room of Sir Robert, a lavishly recreated room of black marble and gold trim complete with a central staircase ringed by Shelley’s “Life, Joy, Empire and Victory” quote.
Servants, butlers and guests maneuvered in and out of exits constantly, effectively conveying the feel that this is just one room in a prodigious mansion. The setting moved only briefly to the house of Lord Goring in the second act, and while that set was considerably narrower, it remained just as indistinguishable as the home of a Victorian-era nobleman.
The only thing more important than the set in establishing the scene of a period piece is the costuming, and the costumes in this production possibly represented the only thing more technically impressive than the set. Men wore the requisite suits, top hats and cloaks, and the dresses worn by even the smallest character matched the over the top, extravagant fashion of the time convincingly.
The costumes even occasionally spoke for the text when we first saw the devious character of Mrs. Cheveley adorned in a bright purple dress that contrasted sharply with the pure and plain whites and grays of her fellow women.
Of course, impressive sets and costumes do little if the content of the play falls flat. With his biting but often subtle wit, it is extremely difficult to do justice to Wilde. These are actors whose bread and butter is the Bard himself, though, and they were up to the challenge.
Every actor was able to recognize the understated humor in Wilde’s text, and lines that could easily have passed unnoticed became raucously funny just by their delivery. Wilde’s twisted aphorisms that parodied Victorian life and human behavior as a whole came across as both clever and natural.
Special mention goes to Cameron Folmar’s portrayal of Lord Goring, a self-proclaimed “pleasure seeker” who gets embroiled in Sir Robert’s controversy. His blatant sarcasm and razor sharp wit carried the comedic pulse of every scene he was in.
Despite its comedy, “An Ideal Husband” tells the tragic story of a man’s struggle to keep his private life together in the face of public scandal. Like most plays that deal with politics, “An Ideal Husband” is still relevant in this climate, and the Shakespeare Theater Company proved again with this production that they are quite capable of doing full justice to more than just William Shakespeare.