Bravely continuing its “host of heroes” season even as local theatre curtains remain closed, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company (LBSC) is offering Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play, A Woman of No Importance, for virtual viewing through Monday, Aug. 3.
This streaming performance is an experiment for LBSC, producer Dana Leach told the Signal Tribune . The company recorded its staging of the play from different angles and in high definition, but discovered interesting things about theatre sound while editing, Leach added.
“The acoustics in the theatre are not great when it’s empty,” Leach said. “We also learned the theatrical lights hum slightly anytime the light is not on full.”
Nevertheless, as directed by Lauren Velasco, LBSC’s A Woman of No Importance is an absorbing, well-paced drama with Wilde’s dialogue bouncing from one character to the next before plunging into real emotional depths.
British upper-crust society is exposed as petty, and its morality revealed as fickle, compared to the plight of one heroic woman.
The play opens with a visiting young American girl, Hester Worsley (Jessie Vane), gossiping with Lady Caroline (Lecia Papadopoulos) and her husband John (Brandon Warfield) in Lady Hunstanton’s (Yvonne Roberston) well-appointed English drawing room. Soon, a delighted young Gerald Arbuthnot (Conor Sheehan) announces he has been appointed as private secretary to the ambassador Lord Illingworth– the start of a “brilliant future,” according to Lady
Hunstanton, who promptly invites Gerald’s mother to dinner.
Meanwhile, sparks fly between Hester and Gerald, while the drawing room fills with ladies and gentlemen continuing to gossip, mostly about marriage and women. Enter the wittily assured Lord Illingworth (Jonah Goger), replete with his “wicked” reputation.
The first act highlights the viewpoints of the British upper class, revealing blatant biases about Americans, the poor and women. Illingworth and the married Mrs. Allonby (Andrea Stradling) engage in hypocritical and knowing flirtation, and the scene ends with Illingworth remembering the soon-to-arrive Mrs. Rachel Arbuthnot as some “woman of no importance.”
Then Act II begins with the women talking about men, particularly married men, setting the stage for the unassuming and grounded Mrs. Arbuthnot’s (Lauren Holiday) entrance. When she and Illingworth face each other with Gerald between them, and Illingworth realizes Gerald is hisson, the tone of the play suddenly turns serious and deeply personal as the consequences of aristocratic views becomes clear.
Does Illingworth have a right to Gerald as his son, given that he left Rachel pregnant? Rachel tells it like it is, which may resonate with how women still feel today when a child’s father leaves her to raise it alone, often in shame. And yet Illingworth dubs Rachel a typical “selfish” woman for not allowing Gerald to go away with him. (Yes, he says that.)
These impactful scenes are nicely edited on video, with closeups of the three actors, whose interactions are the real heart of the play and well worth the first scenes illuminating the society in which they operate. Both Acts III and IV culminate in emotional revelations, and Illingworth’s boorish behavior may make you wonder how and why the #Me Too Movement didn’t begin a hundred years ago.
The three main actors carry their roles especially well: Goger as Illingworth is both confidently witty and smarmy; Holiday as Rachel is strong yet vulnerable; and Sheehan makes a boyishly innocent Gerald (like a young George Hamilton), especially in a scene where Illingworth introduces him to smoking and drinking while basically explaining how women should be seen and not heard.
The supporting actors also excel, some in extended scenes, all the more admirably considering most rehearsals happened via Zoom video-conferencing, according to Leach. As directed by Velasco, they inflect their voices engagingly even while negotiating varying degrees of British accent. Costumes by Leach are fashioned appropriately for the time– all silks, puffy sleeves and cravats– and set design by Tim Leach is Victorian but pleasantly bright and cheerful.
A couple of viewing tips: Read the program link LBSC sends before watching the play, just as you would in the theatre. Also, you can click CC for captioning in the YouTube video link to discern the higher pitched voices such as Lady Caroline’s in the opening scene, or better yet, follow along with this public-domain copy of Wilde’s play.
Otherwise, sit back, relax, and enjoy a night (or day, or whenever) in a local theatre once again for a substantial and emotional look at a time reminiscent of our own in many ways.
Visit LBSC’s website at lbshakespeare.org to purchase a streaming ticket for A Woman of No Importance. One ticket is $35 and good for an entire household to view the play as many times as desired, through Aug. 3.