At the Yale Repertory Theatre premiere of Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance” this coming Thursday, the audience will — naturally, perhaps — focus on the melodrama. The enthralling tale of scandal in upper-class society will inevitably overshadow the weeks of preparation that came before opening night.
But this is a unique production for both the Yale Rep and the Yale School of Drama students involved: It is directed by James Bundy DRA ’95, School of Drama dean and artistic director of the Yale Rep. Two years ago, Bundy was slated to direct Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” at the theater, but he could not complete it because of heart surgery. This is his first venture back to the stage since 2006.
Bundy said he chose “A Woman of No Importance” because it satisfied a long-standing desire to direct this “funny, subversive and heartfelt” Wilde play that comments critically on women, men, parents and children.
“I love that the play both lampoons its characters with satirical wit and displays deep compassion for them in the same evening,” Bundy said.
“A Woman of No Importance,” which was first published and premiered in 1893, is set in Lady Hunstanton’s ostentatious English country estate, where lords and ladies assemble for afternoon tea and witty conversation. As the powerful Lord Illingworth offers menial banker Gerald Arbuthnot a job as his secretary, much to the unexplained chagrin of Gerald’s mother, Wilde paves the way for spectacular drama. Affair, betrayal, desire and attempted murder erupt in the seemingly docile upper-class milieu.
The challenge and joy of staging this play stemmed from Wilde’s complicated language and efforts to emulate Victorian England both aesthetically and verbally. Bundy noted that the artistic team had to reach across “distance and time of a culture to grab an audience viscerally in the fundamental questions of the play.”
The dramaturg of production Amy Boratko DRA ’06 worked with Bundy to create the world the actors inhabit and to help him fulfill his vision. Doing research on prior performances in England and the United States and reading reviews and critical essays, Boratko explored the figure of Wilde, the meaning of the play and the nature of the Victorian age.
The play’s aesthetic visionaries complemented Boratko’s research-oriented work: Costume, set and lighting designers have worked to recreate the 19th-century environment visually.
Anya Klepikov DRA ’08, the show’s costume designer, said she relished the chance to work with period costumes, having previously focused on 20th-century shows. After acquainting herself with the garment culture of the period — analyzing how people dressed and moved — she drew sketches for the characters.
Accustomed to working on Drama School productions, Klepikov profited from the bigger budget of a Yale Rep show. While she built most of the women’s costumes in New Haven, many of the men’s clothes originate from Cosprop, a rental house in London where Klepikov traveled earlier in the semester.
Like Klepikov, the Drama School actors in the show have appreciated Yale Rep production standards. Bryce Pinkham DRA ’08, acting in his first Wilde show, valued the extra rehearsal and production time standard of a Rep show. It is, he said, a chance to discover something new each night and then use it again the next night.
Pinkham plays Gerald, a young man who, unlike the other characters, knows nothing of the exquisite decadence of the upper class until he spends time at the estate party. Offered the job of a lifetime while falling in love with an American guest, Gerald learns shocking details of his past. Pinkham said Gerald’s “swift ascension to manhood” defines his character.
Though Pinkham said he has never confronted “circumstance as desperate as Gerald’s,” he sympathized with character’s excitement over an opportunity he “never thought was possible” — which for him was equivalent to being admitted to the School of Drama. He also cited the advice of a previous teacher: “You should love being an actor because you get to live in these outrageous or desperate circumstances for a few hours that you may never have had the chance to experience.”
Wilde too lived through his plays and learned about himself from them. Between the witty aphorisms and moments of potentially tragic melodrama, Wilde posed fundamental questions about society that are relevant today.
Boratko explained that “A Woman of No Importance” is both a love letter to society and a tool to illuminate society’s dark underbelly, revealing the pain for those who don’t fit in. Through critique of society and use of comedy, the play, Bortako said, asks the audience to consider how someone survives in society while paving an individual path.
Bundy admires “A Woman of No Importance” for its ability to explore a wide range of issues. Wilde’s melodrama, despite the pejorative implications of the term today, provides the grounds for duality — comedy and tragedy coexist.
The show premieres Thursday and will run through April 12.