Coward Plays with Wilde Manners

Coward Plays with Wilde Manners

Irish repertory offers rare and successful staging of the operetta “After the Ball”

In the contemporary world of theatrical productions, the operetta is a difficult form to sell. Depending on audience’s preferences, operetta can either be a delightful confection or an enervating bore. I am decidedly in the camp that believes it is the former and so was completely won over, indeed beguiled, by the luscious, yet intimate, production of “After the Ball” currently at the Irish Repertory.

“After the Ball” is based on Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” with music and lyrics by Noel Coward. “After the Ball” is not the greatest work of either man, but it is a touching show, rendered more so by the affectionate direction and wonderful staging of Tony Walton. It is presented very much as a chamber operetta, and the character of the Duchess of Berwick is played with shining verve by Kathleen Widdoes. In light of the Irish Rep’s space constraints, as seen last season with “Finian’s Rainbow,” this production is wisely staged. Walton has also done the costumes, with a sense of texture, color and scale that’s exceptional, particularly for the female characters. He has given an economical but unmistakable rendering of age, rank and income, which perfectly complements one of Wilde’s more mordant comedies of manners.

The story is one of society, misapprehension, social judgment and impropriety in appearance. Wilde’s satiric prowess ably depicts how social pressures ultimately trump family attachments, and how without making the appropriate social impression the individual is irrevocably diminished.

After being away for 20 years, a certain Mrs. Erlynne has returned to London and is eager to enter society once more, though gossip and rumor suggest that she is a woman of less than spotless honor. When Lord Windermere insists on inviting “that woman” to a ball at his home, Lady Windermere assumes he is unfaithful and plots to run away with the dashing Lord Darlington. In the end, though, she is saved from ignominy by the very Mrs. Erlynne she had feared was her nemesis and who harbors a secret that Lady Windermere, ironically, will never know. It is not a complex plot, but the portrait it paints of society’s strictures is at once amusing and unnerving, a specialty of Wilde’s.

There are also riches to be found in Coward’s score. His comments on society––“Why is it the Woman Who Pays?” and “Oh What a Century”––are characteristically sardonic and crammed with deft rhyming. The tone of the score changes in the second act, going from lighter music-hall ditties to more serious numbers that are in many cases better and more complex. Even with the stylistic incongruity, the show holds together under Walton’s direction that probes the piece’s bittersweet heart and takes the characters seriously, despite their surface frivolity.

The cast sparkles. Mary Illes as Mrs. Erlynne is especially good, using her fine voice and superb technique to perfectly fill the small theater, making one feel for the character’s dual nature—opportunistic and scheming, to be sure, but also with a feeling heart that she has been forced to hide. Collette Simmons is delightful as the ditzy Lady Agatha as is Greg Mills as Mr. Hopper; together they provide the comic relief as a young couple falling in love while the world spins around them. David Staller as Lord Darlington, a good man of bad behavior, is exceptional. He has a wonderful voice and as an actor finds the man under the personality. His second act number, “Never Again,” is quite moving. The rest of the company is versatile and charming, all singing wonderfully under the excellent musical direction of Mark Hartman who helps the score shine with just a piano, flute and cello.

This is a show that is rarely done, and, while imperfect, offers nonetheless, a perfectly charming evening.

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