By Oscar Wilde.
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
California Shakespeare Theater
July 2-27, 2008
Julie Eccles as Gertrude Chiltern and Stacy Ross as Mrs. Cheveley. Photo: Kevin Berne
Oscar Wilde’s over-the-topness, as a person and a writer, presaged “Will and Grace” by a hundred years, inspired Liberace and Elton John, whether they knew it or not, and laid the first building block for gay marriage, as it stands daring to be re-toppled as California law today. This was all thanks to the “aesthetic” discussion, not to mention nuts-and-bolts details of sodomy and other supposed favorite acts, detailed by the ever-loving British press throughout the years it took Wilde’s “Gross Indecency” trial to drag through the courts. He was a queeny, intelligent Christ-figure for the gay movement, martyred as much for his snappy tongue and effeminacy as for any real sexual deviance. However, history proved there to be no good riddance when it came to Wilde.
And so today, as yet another production of one of the Wilde “chestnuts” is unveiled almost curiously amidst the fog-shrouded hills of an outdoor amphitheatre outside San Francisco, what we are left with is Victorian dragshow, with politics and “goodness” on trial instead of sex, and the foppish second lead, (Lord Goring) not allowed even a moment of queer action, just queer sensibility. This is “Will and Grace” all right, a 19th Century sit-com where ideas lay under the surface only if you look for them.
“The Ideal Husband” deals ironically with Robert and Gertrude Chiltern, the stuffy and churchy “good” politician and his wife, who turn out to have a little secret that may not only ruin things careerwise, for Mr. Chiltern, but screw up the idealized notions upon which Mrs. Chiltern has based her entire ego. Oh well. Why do we enjoy, so much, the presence of the evil Mrs. Cheveley (played by the smokey-voiced Stacy Ross)? Because she’s the only real character, that’s why. She is real, multi-dimensional, sexual, powerful and honest in her evil directions. She’s all business and therefore, all good, in 2008 at least. Is that sad?
Drawing room cleverness and plot-points that begin to snowball at the end like so many cymbal-crashes at a performance of “The 1812 Overture” aside, one can still enjoy Wilde for his witticisms, enjoy the Victoriana of it all, or feel sorry for the whole generation, the British Empire, the man and the play. Better to take a fluffier direction, especially with a glass of picnic chardonnay in your hand, a blanket on your lap, and the stars attempting to sparkle through the cloudcover. That’s exactly what this production has done.
Beyond Ross, who didn’t look quite glamorously evil in her Wildean costumes (by Meg Neville) but was believeable as a voice and a presence, Will and Grace, I mean, Good and Gooder, I mean, Mr. And Mrs. Chiltern, played by Michael Butler and Julie Eccles, lacked the dramatic bigness these mantles require. These are not mere mortals, they are Bible stories, English legends, purity personified, Adam and Eve.
This was an outdoor festival, a summer production without reproach, but nothing that would make you think strongly about Wilde, that would make you appreciate undertones and subtleties inherent in the text of “An Ideal Husband”. The director, Jonathan Moscone, a blood relative of gay history, seems to have taken Oscar a bit for granted.