Bay Area Theater Preview: LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN (California Shakespeare Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on August 9, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


The titular character in Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan is a vivacious young woman, married only two years, who never coughs or displays any other signs of illness. At one point in the play, she refuses to shake hands with a visitor. “My Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of California Shakespeare Theater’s Lady Windermere’s Fan at Bruns Amphitheater in Orindahands are all wet with the roses,” she tells her guest. While her avoidance of shaking hands might be interpreted as fastidiousness, there are other reasons why she would not offer her hand to her would-be suitor Lord Darlington: perhaps she wishes to discourage his flirtatious advances, or maybe it is because she has actually been arranging roses. Still, this was the Victorian era, an age when women wouldn’t do anything they thought vulgar, such as spitting or coughing. Over the years, Wilde’s character would become a symbol of the Victorian era—so much so that in 1992, two radiologists published a report of “The Lady Windermere Syndrome,” in which they concluded that mycobacterial infection had occurred in six overly fastidious women due to voluntary suppression of cough. It’s not that these women could not cough; they simply would not allow themselves to vigorously cough—a necessity for clearing secretions that would ultimately become infected.

While the authors of this study declared that the name of the disease is a “literary malapropism,” the medical world has adopted the term, which speaks more to Wilde’s play than the disease itself. Lady Windermere’s Fan, which California Shakespeare Theater is presenting with a stellar company this week, acerbically lampoons the morals of Victorian society, most notably marriage and the constraints Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of California Shakespeare Theater’s Lady Windermere’s Fan at Bruns Amphitheater in Orindaplaced upon women by society. Women had to be well-behaved at the time, and Lady Windermere’s Fan, which plays Aug 14 through Sep 8, 2013 at the newly renovated, solar-powered Bruns Amphitheater, has an intriguing subtitle: A Play About a Good Woman.

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes, notes: “This was one of Wilde’s earlier plays (1892), a ‘drama’ with farcical undertones, as distinct from the more broadly farcical The Importance of Being Ernest that would emerge a few years later. The entirety of Lady Windermere’s Fan takes place over a single day, which happens to be the protagonist’s 21st birthday. ‘I’m of age today,’ she tells Lord Darlington, and we see her, over this 24-hour period, go through what Cal Shakes’ artistic director Jonathan Moscone describes as ‘24 years of experience.’ Among other things, she comes to question what a ‘good woman’ actually is in this fascinating drama that combines mystery, comedy, and a measure of malignity.”

In the play, a naïve, young woman (and self-professed puritan) is shocked to discover evidence of her older husband’s apparent infidelity. When he not only refuses to confess but insists that she invite the mystery woman to her upcoming society debut, Lady Windermere quickly learns the power of faithfulness and forgiveness in the modern world.

Lady Windermere’s Fan has many notable quotations—“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” “I can resist everything except temptation,” “Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality”—but in the context of “The Lady Windermere Syndrome,” the most appropriate may be: “There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of California Shakespeare Theater’s Lady Windermere’s Fan at Bruns Amphitheater in Orindadragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.”

And the artists working on Cal Shakes’ production demand our attendance to see this witty and wise work, the playwright’s first commercially successful play. Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor and director Christopher Liam Moore will make his Bay Area directorial debut. His design team includes set designer Annie Smart (Another Way Home at the Magic); costume designer Meg Neville (Ghost Light at OSF); lighting designer York Kennedy (Or, at the Magic); and sound designer Will McCandless (4000 Miles at A.C.T.).

The company of Lady Windermere’s Fan is a Who’s Who of Bay Area’s finest actors, including Emily Kitchens (Miranda in Cal Shakes’ The Tempest) in the title role; Aldo Billingslea (unnervingly powerful in This is How It Goes at Aurora) as her husband, Lord Windermere; Danny Scheie (a hysterical Player King in Cal Shakes’ Hamlet) as the Duchess of Berwick; James Carpenter (The Strindberg Cycle at Cutting Ball) as her brother, Lord Augustus; L. Peter Callender (director of African American Shakespeare’s commanding Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ) as Mr. Dumby; and Stacy Ross (unassailable in Wilder Times at Aurora) as the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne. Nick Gabriel (loveable in South Coast Rep’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) plays Lady Windermere’s confidant and not-so-secret admirer, Lord Darlington. Also in the cast are returnees to Cal Shakes: Tyee Tilghman (American Night, Spunk) as Hopper; Rami Margron (Cal Shakes’ Restoration Comedy) as the Duchess’ daughter, Lady Agatha/Lady Plymdale/Rosalie; and Dan Clegg (Romeo in Cal Shakes’ Romeo and Juliet) as Cecil Graham. Bruce Carlton makes his Cal Shakes’ debut as Parker.

publicity photos by Kevin Berne

Lady Windermere’s Fan
California Shakespeare Theater
Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way
(formerly 100 Gateway Blvd) in Orinda
plays August 14 through September 8, 2013
for tickets, call 510.548.9666 or visit

Grounds open two hours prior to show time for picnicking; complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART begins 90 minutes prior to curtain

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