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Frost/Nixon and Lady Windermere's Fan


Frost/Nixon
Freedom Community Theatre at Hope Evangelical Free Church

I admit I had little interest in seeing Frost/Nixon, since I never was fond of David Frost and did not like Richard Nixon (although I didn't despise him like many of my contemporaries did), and I had no interest in the interviews that Frost did with Nixon. But I knew that director Matt Naegeli had done excellent work as both a performer and a director, and it turns out this was one of the best theatrical experiences of the year so far.

I thought the play would largely be excerpts from the interviews, but Peter Morgan, the playwright, concentrates more on how the interviews came to be, on the machinations and strategies that the Frost camp and the Nixon camp employed, on money, and on the characters of Frost and, especially, Nixon. All of this is interesting stuff, and probably much more involving than the actual interviews themselves.

The play is done without intermission, running about 100 minutes, and it really moves. It is performed inside a church building, but in an auditorium. The sets are impressive, considering the facility, and the set changes are the slickest that I can recall. The lighting is interesting, with spots pivoting around until they find a character to focus on, and there are live video projections during the interviews themselves, as if we are watching TV at the same time as we are seeing the live performance. "Television" itself is in some sense a character in this play, and Matt Naegeli emphasizes this by having an old TV set at center stage at the start of the play. Let's face it: If the interviews had been published in a book instead of being broadcast on TV, we would not be watching a play about them.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the play really belongs to the actors who play Nixon and Frost. Shangreaux Lagrave doesn't try to imitate Nixon, similar to previous actors playing the role in this play, and I think that's a good idea. If you can't do a spot-on Nixon, it's better not even to try. Lagrave gives us a character rather than a caricature. Whether Nixon really had a self-loathing streak in him, as the play suggests, I don't know. In Lagrave's performance, he comes across as a real human being, ultimately even sort of sympathetic (or maybe just pathetic).

Christopher Chase as Frost is just perfect. It's hard to believe that this guy was not born and raised in England. I've never seen him do a role with his normal American accent, but having seen him in Arcadia and now this, I'd go see him in a British play any day.

The audience demographic seems to be a problem for this play. When I saw it (granted, it was a Sunday matinee), I did not see anyone under age 50 in the audience. This of course is the group that lived through the Nixon era and might even have watched the interviews when they were first aired. But the production deserves a wider audience. Even people who know nothing about Nixon will enjoy it, if they give it a chance.

Frost/Nixon, by Peter Morgan, presented by Freedom Community Theatre at Hope Evangelical Free Church, 4710 Juan Tabo NE, through August 21. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 pm. General admission is $14, students and seniors $12. For reservations, call 505-228-4164, or visit www.freedomcommunitytheatre.org.


Lady Windermere's Fan
Adobe Theater

I wonder if Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan is the first instance of what we now would call a "dramedy." It has some scenes with the impossibly witty repartee that Wilde is famous for, but there is nothing really funny about the plot, and large sections of the play are not at all comic. If you're expecting an earlier version of The Importance of Being Earnest, be advised that this play is not an out-and-out farce.

There is not that much of a plot, so it's better if you know very little of it. The story concerns Lady Windermere, who is told that her husband is having an affair with a mysterious older woman, Mrs. Erlynne. Who this mystery woman is and how she behaves makes up most of the rest of the story. The fan (the Japanese kind that you fan yourself with) is a plot device, and that's all I'm going to reveal.

This play contains some of Wilde's most famous epigrams, like "I can resist everything except temptation" and "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worse." But as I was watching the play, it occurred to me that, knowing what we now know about Wilde's homosexuality (and that his audience in 1892 probably did not know), there might be a subtext here. When Wilde has a character say, "I won't tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world's voice, or the voice of society. They matter a great deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one's own life, fully, entirely, completely-or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands"—doesn't this sound like a gay liberation speech?

And if you know about Wilde's trials in 1895 for "gross indecency," his fall from grace, his imprisonment, the ruin of his career, and his self-imposed exile and early death, then the following speech by Mrs. Erlynne seems positively prescient: "You don't know what it is to fall into the pit, to be despised, mocked, abandoned, sneered at—to be an outcast! to find the door shut against one ... and all the while to hear the laughter, the horrible laughter of the world, a thing more tragic than all the tears the world has ever shed ... One pays for one's sin, and then one pays again, and all one's life one pays." I told you that this play is not merely a comedy.

To pull off a play like this is not easy. It requires what in filmdom is called "the Lubitsch touch"—a reference to the deftness of director Ernst Lubitsch, who made high-society comedies of manners in Hollywood in the 1930s. His films were graceful, witty and sophisticated, but not superficial; as one critic said of him, he could be "frivolous yet profound." That is exactly what is needed for this play. In looking up Lubitsch online, I was surprised to discover that he in fact made a 1925 silent film version of Lady Windermere's Fan—although why anybody would make a silent version of an Oscar Wilde play is beyond me.

Unfortunately, the Adobe Theater production is lacking the Lubitsch touch. Part of the problem, I think, is the inexperience of some of the actors. Oscar Wilde plays must be done with upper-class English accents, and if that accent does not become second-nature to the actor, then it usually impedes the performance. I often got the feeling that the actor was concentrating more on getting the accent right than on portraying a character, and I found myself almost in suspense wondering when some American vowel sound would slip in.

The sets and costumes are fine, the directing is competent, and the cast really tries, but several of them just don't seem at home on stage yet. The most successful Wildean is Jenny Miller, who is hilarious as the Duchess of Berwick, but the part is not one of the lead roles. Also very good is Sarah Daum as Mrs. Erlynne, and Logan Wilde Kottler does well as the epigram-spewing Cecil Graham. (He must have "theater parents," since his middle name is a tribute to Oscar. In fact, his mother, Jonatha Kottler, is the director of this production, and in this case, nepotism works.)

Maybe later in the run the performers will loosen up and get more comfortable with their accents and stage movement. If you like Oscar Wilde and have seen Earnest too many times, you might give this play a try. You can't go too far wrong with a play that contains the line "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde, at the Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth Street NW, through September 4. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm. General admission is $14; seniors, students and ATG members $12. For reservations, call 505-898-9222. For more information, visit www.adobetheater.org.

--Dean Yannias



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