As a longtime fan of Oscar Wilde, the corners of my mouth go instantly north whenever I hear that some industrious theatre company is mounting one of his plays. Though he is principally known as a poet or for his single, inimitable novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s plays showcase some of his most creative, quotable writing. For the uninitiated, think of him as a more incisive, wittier Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, a social commentator who did it all on his own without the benefit of the Internet or an entire staff of writers.
Wilde was ahead of his time and in many ways a man apart when he penned such treasures as An Ideal Husband, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. During the same highly productive period in the late 19th century, he also scribed the Victorian melomedy (that’s “melodramatic comedy” for all the logophiles playing at home), A Woman of No Importance. Boulder’s Upstart Crow Theatre Company brings this play to the Dairy Center for the Arts for a brief, pre-holiday run.
Like much of Wilde’s work, A Woman of No Importance skewers upper-class British society, puts a heavy emphasis on the never-ending, often ridiculous dance between the sexes and contains more quotable lines than an entire season of Saturday Night Live. Here are but a few gems to whet your appetite: “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” “I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.” And last, but certainly not least, the description of women as “Sphinxes without secrets.”
A Woman of No Importance takes place almost entirely at the country estate of Lady Hunstanton (Prema Rose). The Lady is hosting numerous guests, including a handful of socialites, Lady Pontefract (Joan Kuder Bell), Mrs. Allonby (Dana Padgett) and Lady Stutfield (Anna Rhea Vernier), a young American on holiday, Hester Worsley (Kristy E. Pike), a somewhat dour member of the House of Commons, Mr. Kelvil (Russ Nielson) and a roguish member of the House of Lords, Lord Illingworth (Robert Mitchell).
Lord Illingworth offers to make provincial bank clerk Gerald Arbuthnot (Galen Pereira) his private secretary and take him off on lavish adventures around the globe. Arbuthnot leaps at the opportunity, but soon a secret surfaces that may endanger not only the tantalizing position but also the most important relationships in his life. All of this occurs against the backdrop of much mischievous discussion — primarily among the women-folk and Lord Illingworth — about the nature of life, love and yes, even sex.
Just to keep the pot boiling, there is also a Les Liaisons dangereuses-style bet between Mrs. Allonby and Lord Illingworth about whether Illingworth will be able to steal a kiss from the Puritan Ms. Worsley. And when the Big Secret is finally revealed it is less a climax than a segue into a subsection of the play dealing with societal double standards and familial intrigue.
One of the greatest writers of the 19th, or any, century, Wilde provides excellent source material with A Woman of No Importance. Even with its modest budget — there is only one set change in the entire show — and mostly semi-professional cast, Upstart Crow gets a leg up from the choice of play itself. The finished product, while by no means award-worthy, is suitably competent and deserves an audience if only to expose more people to the wonders of Wilde.
A few performances deserve special note. Given the lion’s share of Wilde’s witticisms, Lord Illingworth propels much of the play, and Mitchell suits the character well. In a more supporting role, Bell plays Lady Pontefract with a wonderful mix of snobbishness and insecurity. As a sort of female Illingworth, Mrs. Allonby must be played forcefully yet effortlessly, and Padgett achieves that difficult mix on more than one occasion. By far, though, the loudest applause belongs to Vernier as Lady Stutfield. Giving easily the most naturalistic performance, Vernier takes a small role and goes big with it.
A Woman of No Importance by the Upstart Crow Theatre Company is at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. It runs through Dec. 15. Tickets are $17-$20. Call 303-442-1415 or visit www.theupstartcrow.org.