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‘Lady Windemere’ is a visual, intellectual feast

Peter Hinton’s lush, cinematic and visually intoxicating production of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” running through Oct. 19 on the Festival Theatre stage, is sure to be remembered as one more beautiful feather in the Shaw Festival’s already crowded cap.

In this production, Wilde’s classic tale of marital strife and dissatisfaction among the hypocritical aristocracy of his time becomes a dark and gloriously maudlin rumination on human aspiration and longing that goes straight for the heart.

It centers on the titular Lady Windemere (the excellent Marle McLean), a good woman torn between her loving if somewhat less than enthralling husband (Martin Harper) and the tortured and thoroughly dashing Mr. Dumby (Gray Powell, who radiates rugged charm). There is also the matter of one Mrs. Erlynne (Tara Rosling), a woman with a scandalous reputation and a dangerous secret that threatens to tear the lives of Wilde’s characters into so much poisonous confetti.

The play, though not considered one of Wilde’s best, contains no shortage of searing wit and makes no bones about who it sets out to mock. Wilde’s targets for criticism appear on each and every character, which provides a unique sensation that keeps us tuned in: Who will be his next victim? But it also contains a sincere and beating heart, an empathy for its central heroine and the tricky moral dilemma she faces.

The production design of the show, which provides an alternately light-drenched or shadow-plagued backdrop that amplifies the wide mood swings of its characters, is one of the most enthralling the Shaw Fest has ever conceived. Teresa Przybylski’s sets and Louise Guinand’s lighting conspire to create sumptuous and frightening stage pictures that seem to owe more to Caravaggio or Velazquez than anything from Hollywood or Broadway.

The play opens on the sunlight-filled room of Lady Windemere, the lightness of which soon gives way to a stuffy enclave that mirrors her husband’s own stuffiness. Later, we see the Windemeres’ vast ballroom, seemingly lit by moonlight and filled with all the babbling aristocrats of Wilde’s active imagination dancing away in William Schmuck’s elaborate costumes.

When, by the time the plot thickens and we find ladies Windemere and Carlisle in Lord Darlington’s spartan rooms, the whole affair becomes monochromatic and menacing. It’s clear we’re dealing with phenomenally gifted designers here.

What’s even more remarkable than the designers’ work is the fact that it does not overwhelm the performances, which range from heart-wrenching to hilarious. McLean and Besworth take the spotlight, evincing completely believable yearning and menace against the credible exasperation of Harper and Powell.

This production of “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” set off by musical selections from the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Katy Perry that actually work, is the most visually addictive play to appear on the Festival Theater stage in years.