An Ideal Husband

Austin Shakespeare delivers a gorgeous production that savors Wilde's wit

Arts Review

An Ideal Husband

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, through March 1

Running time: 2 hr, 30 min

Since the early Eighties, Austin Shakespeare has dedicated itself to producing the works of the greatest of all writers, but in recent years, the company has also begun to stage classic plays by other writers. This latest Actors' Equity offering, of Oscar Wilde's late-19th century comic treatise on public and private truth, co-produced with the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, is the first non-Shakespearean effort I've seen from the company, and it consistently strives for the highest standard of professionalism.

Who wouldn't want an ideal husband? Or an ideal wife? Who would wish for flaws when perfection was available? Lady Gertrude Chiltern sees her husband, Robert, as a perfect man, but all of us know that none of us is perfect, and neither is Sir Robert. As a young man, someone tempted Chiltern to a professional indiscretion, an indiscretion upon which he built both his fortune and his honorable reputation, and that indiscretion has come back to haunt him in the person of a Mrs. Cheveley. But as with all good tales, Cheveley has committed at least one indiscretion of her own, the key to which is held by Chiltern's exceedingly conceited yet charming friend, Lord Goring. And that's all the plot you'll get from me.

From the moment I entered the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, I was inundated with warmth and wealth, with sumptuous, flowery parlors and rich, polished studies. Set designer Michelle Ney and lighting designer Jason Amato also cleverly combine huge swaths of fabric and multicolored light above the stage to completely transform the look and feel of the space. But in a design that is outstanding in every conceivable way, Abbey Graf's exquisite costumes stand out. While the men, in sharp tuxes and polished leather, embody the very definition of the word "dapper," the women in the late 19th century were walking, talking works of art: huge hats decorated with flowers and feathers, high waists and long skirts, huge amounts of fabric and trim, ribbons and bows bustling out every which way – eye candy of the sweetest kind. The show is almost worth seeing just for the costumes.

Fortunately, there's more than the design to recommend. The actors as a group savor Wilde's witty language, but two of them in particular impress. While he mugs like mad during one scene in the first act, Mark Scheibmeir in the role of Sir Robert eventually settles down and completely convinces as a man attempting to face an extreme moral dilemma with dignity. Most delightful was Marlane Barnes as Chiltern's precocious sister, Mabel, the only performer who brought consistent energy, focus, and tempo to every scene in which she appeared. Director Ann Ciccolella obviously has brought high standards to the helm of Austin Shakespeare. While I would have preferred a more varied tempo throughout, to see considerably less distracting movement in the first act of the show, and, generally speaking, to see the actors more grounded as a group, it's difficult to imagine a better looking show staged anywhere in Austin this year.

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Austin Shakespeare, UT Department of Theatre and Dance, Ann Ciccolella, Michelle Ney, Jason Amato, Abbey Graf, Mark Scheibmeir, Marlane Barnes

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