The lord of the bon mot
, Oscar Wilde himself, once said, “The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure,” and perhaps he was describing an experience like mine at his show A Woman of No Importance
tonight. Here was a show that was very charming in story and execution, but the audience seemed so unreceptive, even if they eventually came around. Alumnae Theatre’s production transplants Wilde’s work from one century to the next, to the gaud and shoulder pads of the 1980s. A piece of England’s upper class (and one young, American slice) enjoy the luxuries, while disdaining the company, at Hunstanton Chase, the country home of a rich widow. It's a strange though enjoyable play, equal parts Wildean comedy, class satire and family drama. For the first portion of the show the guests take turns debauching, proffering witticisms and sniping at each other. Meanwhile, the drama unfolds when the ambitious son of an unwed mother, whom he loves very much, is offered an exciting job opportunity, though the identity of his employer may force his mother to divulge her darkest secret.
To be a little more generous to the audience, the play takes a few minutes to really warm up to. It may seem like a small thing, but the cast does the whole play with British accents, which takes a little getting used to. Despite this, there were few instances where the speech was lost, thanks to a very capable cast. The audience, at first, seemed hesitant to laugh at the straight-faced performers firing off Wilde’s hilarious, scathing dialogue, though they got into it the more the show went along. While it's a skilled cast all around, staging a mansion full of Wilde’s larger-than-life characters, the real standouts are the strong females in the show. Aine Magennis brings a solid performance as the conflicted, wronged mother, Mrs Arbuthnot; she avoids hysterics and instead presents a tough woman, a survivor. On the sillier side, Andy Fraser is absolutely delightful as the hostess, Lady Hunstanton, a good-natured woman in over her head with contemptuous, sardonic guests. Gillian English, as well, serving ’80s Dynasty
realness, plays an anxious, condescending wife, oft upturning her nose, and is equally a joy to watch.
The 1980s aesthetic is enjoyable, although perhaps a little unnecessary; while the play deals with a critique of the class system it would work just as much in the 19th as the 20th century. The costumes and set design are all wonderful, and the aesthetic certainly doesn’t get in the way of the meat of the show. The play will surprise those attending who consider Wilde a frivolous writer, because the family drama of A Woman of No Importance
is actually quite touching and had everyone on the edge of their seats. Most interestingly, Wilde presents a sympathetic alternative family, a single mother who raised a decent, loving son, and this is quite affecting without being overly sentimental. The actors create a powerful production about this alternative family, tempered with the humour and wit of the ridiculous upper-class scenes. The show is certainly a different theatrical experience: go prepared for snappy dialogue, hilarious characters and a good story. Don’t be worried if at first you’re the only one laughing. After all, you’re there for a Wilde time.
A Woman of No Importance runs till Sat, Feb 9. Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkley St. PWYC-$20. alumnaetheatre.com