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Cast stumbles on uneven Wilde plot [Aug. 28th, 2007|12:26 pm]
Tom McCamus: Ground Control

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Cast stumbles on uneven Wilde plot
Jamie Portman, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Thursday, August 23, 2007

STRATFORD, Ont. - There's nothing like some delicious villainy to spice up a summer theatre season. And it's served up in spades by Dixie Seatle in her performance as a conniving blackmailer in the Stratford Festival's production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

Seatle is memorably smiling, scheming, sumptuous and seductive as a self-assured adventuress named Mrs. Cheveley who has the power to destroy the career of politician Sir Robert Chiltern (Tom McCamus) unless he uses his influence to get a piece of questionable legislation through Parliament. If he refuses, he faces exposure and disgrace because she holds evidence of a dark deed from his past. He also faces the destruction of his marriage to the morally upright wife (Brigit Wilson) he adores.

Bringing both physical allure and a knowing, insinuating humour to her role, Seatle creates a character who is exhilaratingly and reprehensibly alive. You may be appalled by her, but you're having a wonderful time watching her. More the pity, then, that her performance is not framed in a better production.

At times, director Richard Monette seems determined to prove the truth of Henry James's observation 112 years ago that An Ideal Husband was "so helpless, so crude, so bad, so clumsy, feeble and vulgar" that no audience could tolerate it. James was probably guilty of sour grapes. After all, his own play, which opened the same night, was a disaster while Wilde's play lasted 124 performances. Nevertheless, An Ideal Husband is stylistically uneven, and this final production of the 2007 Stratford season seems intent on underlining Wilde's failure to decide whether he was writing an elegant comedy of manners, a raving piece of melodrama or a frantic farce.

Still, Seatle navigates her way through the treacherous shoals of this material with shark-like assurance. McCamus is never less than convincing with his portrait of a man who finds his integrity under siege because of a morally questionable act long ago. And Sarah Topham -- effervescent, amusing and breathtaking in one of designer François St-Aubin's few flattering costumes -- is a delight as his bouncy sister.

Some supporting performances are also gems -- Bruce Dow as a plummy-voiced Earl of Derby and Brian Tree, snarling his way comically through the role of the apoplectic Earl of Caversham.

Yet, for all the strength of individual performances, the production fails to address the play's big problem -- an uneasy juxtaposition of Wildean wit and melodramatic hokum. Furthermore, a number of sub-par performances make the discrepancy all the more glaring. The most troublesome portrayal comes from David Snelgrove in the pivotal role of Lord Arthur Goring, the idle young fop who reveals unexpected reserves when best friend Sir Robert seeks help in dealing with the blackmail threat.

Goring is a memorable creation, one of the wittiest figures in the Wilde canon. But the fact that he gets the lion's share of good lines doesn't absolve the actor playing him of the need to present some kind of human being. The role demands more than merely the spouting of funny epigrams; here, we're subjected to a preening, posturing, pontificating performance.

There are other puzzling acting contributions as well. Chick Reid's garrulous society matron is so low-key and fluttery that she blunts the barbs she's supposed to be throwing around her social circle. Wilson's mindless hysterics as the embattled Lady Chiltern, struggling to salvage her husband's reputation, are even more perplexing. The play tells us that she's "the most sensible woman in London." Instead we get a yowling neurotic.

An Ideal Husband continues until Oct. 27. Tickets & times: stratford-festival.on.ca.

Taken from: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/arts/story.html?id=2a39e852-3117-4ecf-acfa-fcaadc7aba01
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