George Brown theatre program brings Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband to vivid life at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts
An Ideal Husband (at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts) opened at just the right moment: as our own chief magistrate tumbles further and further down what appears to be a bottomless well of tawdry personal scandals, Oscar Wilde’s play is especially prescient.
Set in the 1890s, a promising young politician–Sir Robert Chilthern–is blackmailed by the villainous Mrs. Cheveley, who has acquired evidence of an earlier, devastating indiscretion. Aided by the dandified Lord Goring, Sir Robert must obtain the evidence before everything–his marriage, his career, his freedom–is destroyed.
This is a Wilde play, from which we can infer three things: lots and lots of wordplay (crisp as ever), lots and lots of social commentary (aren’t aristocrats silly?), and a romantic subplot. But a large part of what keeps this script fresh is its treatment of women and feminism, and at several points in the script, conventional roles are swapped altogether. The men become the impotent, emotionally-driven fools and idle flirts, while the women are crisp, logical, clear thinkers who roll up their sleeves and get things done. Director James Simon plays this up, and in particular suggests that Sir Robert’s wife is not only more intelligent than she seems, but is perhaps even the better politician of the two: Sir Robert has feet of clay, while Lady Chiltern’s only weakness is deep and abiding love for her husband.
I’d also like to draw attention to Laura Gardner’s costuming, which is exquisite, emphasizing dramatic effect over strict adherence to period detail. Mrs. Cheveley in particular vamps it up in her first-act outfit, every inch as femme as she is fatale. Jacqueline Robertson-Cull’s hair design is also excellent, although I’d like to especially praise the work done on Lady Chiltern, whose waves and curls are both gorgeous and appropriate for this setting.
The performances are also quite strong. Alessandro Constantini steals scenes as a solicitous Vicompte at the act-one embassy party; Tiffany Deobald plays nearly four times her age as the meddling and gossipy Lady Markby–and pulls it off very well; and Lee Ann Ball, as the china-doll Miss Mable Chiltern, is exactly as sweet and puckish as the part requires: we can easily see why even the grizzled Earl of Caversham is thrilled just to be in her presence.
But I found the real highlight of this cast was Nicole Buscema, who turns in a downright spiderlike Mrs. Cheveley. Aided considerably by costumes and makeup which emphasize the lily-white surface and the darkness which lurks beneath, this is a woman who clearly takes a degree of delight in drawing men deep within her various plots: a quick-thinking, back-stabbing master of intrigue and deception. Buscema’s ability to completely dominate the stage adds considerable value to the characterization, and the mischief behind her eyes can send a chill up the spine.
The political humour in this show hasn’t aged especially well, but the questions it raises–to what extent can we forgive public figures for past indiscretions? how long is the statute of limitations on irresponsibility? do we judge public figures too harshly? when can we decide someone has suffered enough?–are as relevant as ever. While Wilde’s wordplay tends to benefit from a brighter clip than this production affords, the language itself remains delightful.
And I’m not kidding about the costuming.
- An Ideal Husband runs through November 16th at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. (50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery District)
- Adult tickets cost $18.00; student and senior discounts available. See website for details.
- Tickets can be ordered online, by telephone (416-866-8666), or in-person at the venue box office. Service charges may apply to online or telephone orders.
Photograph of Nicole Buscema (as Mrs. Cheveley) and Matthew Shaw (as Lord Goring) by Andrew Oxenhan.