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A Walk on the Wild Oscar Side: A Picture Speaks 1,000 Words

Ed Rampell: More adventurous ticket buyers who prefer their plays to lean towards the edgier, experimental side are more likely to enjoy this drama about obsessions with beauty and youth.
Picture of Dorian Gray

Colin Bates and Frederick Stuart

A PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY Theatre Review

Director Michael Michetti’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 Gothic novella The Picture of Dorian Gray - about the costs of eternal youth and beauty - is a highly stylized, exceedingly strange play. Large swathes of Picture border on avant-garde theatre, especially in Act II. The sinister plot and its presentation are likely to make some theatergoers uncomfortable (leave the kiddies at home for this one!) and to enthrall others as a most apropos choice for the Halloween season.

Most of the characters are charter members of Britain’s upper class and in his portrait of England’s elite Wild Oscar sneers at their pretentiousness as he rips the veils off of his hypocritical dramatis personae. Lord Henry Wotton (Frederick Stuart) has a sham marriage to Lady Henry (the poised Tania Verafield), which witty Wotton notes provides him with cover to pursue debauchery (if not outright douche baggery). His ideal of “the new hedonism” is personified by the title character, supposedly hyper-handsome Dorian Gray (Colin Bates, who proves that beauty is in the eye of the casting director, if not the beholder). Enamored by him, the philosophical poseur Wotton spoils Dorian rotten.

More adventurous ticket buyers who prefer their plays to lean towards the edgier, experimental side are more likely to enjoy this drama about obsessions with beauty and youth.

They meet through the effeminate painter Basil Hallward (Amin El Gamal), who daubs a compelling portrait which Dorian sits for (actually, he’s standing) in the buff. Some viewers may be put off by the full frontal nudity but personally I didn’t mind seeing Oscar Wilde’s wiener. I applaud A Noise Within for utilizing the artistic freedom that many artists, notably Wild Oscar himself, fought for in their works and lives. About 500 words were edited out of Wilde’s novella when Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine initially published Picture in Victorian England, and Wilde paid a terrible price for his outré sexuality.

Today, too many stage and screen productions fail to take advantage of the hard fought for freedom they now legally possess but take for granted and still all too often coyly cover thesps up beneath the sheets. (Hey producers/ directors: If you don’t have the bravery to show nudity/sex onstage/ onscreen, like here’s a really novel idea: Don’t include these kinds of scenes in your shows. Bravo to ANW for having the courage of its convictions. However, having said that, some may say Picture has a gender double standard - why no female nudity? What gives with that gender bias? You know, “equal time” means equality - it’s kind of baked into the name…)

Picture of Dorian Gray

Meanwhile, back at the review:

Act I covers Dorian’s youth, but after the intermission, while the other characters have clearly aged with the passage of about two decades, Dorian appears to be the same age in Act II that he was in the first act. What is the secret of his seeming agelessness, wherein he remains a sterling specimen of physical beauty?

But timeless Dorian’s debauched life, wherein, as he says, he has “pursued pleasure - but not happiness,” has taken its toll on him, especially on his inner self. Michetti’s creepy adaptation of Wilde’s horror story has a strongly homoerotic theme, although Dorian seems to be bisexual and is depicted being involved with members of both genders. His purported beauty is so splendid that Dorian is irresistible to both men and women, drawn to pulchritude like a moths to a flame. As he frequents London’s demi monde and fleshpots, the story asks: “What price youth? What price beauty?”

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Michetti helms his cast skillfully, as the veneer of puritanical “respectability” among the English aristos is torn to shred by Irish Oscar, who wields his pen like a rapier. Deborah Strang is strong as haughty high society ladies (I grew up with a girl named Debbie Strang - what are the odds?). Chelsea Kurtz is affecting as the actress Sibyl Vane, who is inexplicably jilted by Dorian with dire consequences, all because Sibyl isn’t a particularly good actress (although Ms. Kurtz per se certainly is).

Particularly arresting is the exquisite Tania Verafield, whose eyes burn like embers as she plays Lady Henry, Gladys and a member of the Ensemble. She rather memorably romps about the boards clad in 19th century lingerie that could be described as Victorian Era Victoria’s Secret undergarments. The American-born Verafield is adept in her various roles, whether slinging bon mot in a convincing British accent or dancing. Alas, this multi-talented actress who was a thunderbolt as Lizzie Lightning in Theatre of Note’s For the Love Of (Or The Roller Derby Play) isn’t given enough to do in this male-centric production - although happily for theatergoers, Ms. Verafield returns to ANW’s stage when Othello debuts February 10.

As the title character Bates (Colin - not Norman) is fine. In his final nude scene, and I kid thee not Dear Reader, his twitching derriere does the best butt acting I’ve ever seen. I’m not trying to be lewd or jocular - Bates adeptly uses his body to convey quivering emotion. Bates is to be commended for giving his all - including the Full Monty - to his art.

BTW, Wilde was not only a sexual revolutionary - he was an out of the closet socialist. His extremely perceptive 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism argued that leisure was too fine an attribute to be wasted solely on the ruling class and he advocated the creation of a leisure society for the working class through seizing the means of production and equitable redistribution of wealth, so that ordinary people could pursue their creative impulses and like you know, have fun and enjoy life - instead of just the rich (like the decadent Dorian and his chums) doing so under capitalism. I strongly suggest all read Wilde’s libertarian take on what Marx called “the free association of individuals.”

Picture of Dorian Gray

Colin Bates, Amin El Gamal, and Frederick Stuart

Meanwhile, back at the review:

Garry Lennon’s period costumes enhance a show that will nevertheless probably be best known for its lead being out of costume. One of the play’s best things is the scenic design by Machetti and James Maloof. They cleverly use picture frames to frame their tale and an otherwise mostly bare stage. Even doors are suggestive of this framing device. However, I wasn’t smart enough to figure out what all that junk behind the huge frame in Act II was supposed to mean. (Is Dorian a hoarder?)

Even if we Angelenos live in the epicenter of the High Renaissance of plastic surgery - procedures Oscar Wilde prefigured in his 1890 novella - A Picture of Dorian Gray is not for everybody. If depictions of murder, male nudity, homosexuality and avant-garde mise-en-scene on the stage aren’t your thing you might prefer to skip this production. More adventurous ticket buyers who prefer their plays to lean towards the edgier, experimental side are more likely to enjoy this drama about obsessions with beauty and youth. Those who love to take a walk on the Wilde side may be riveted by Oscar’s vision of the importance of being beautiful and forever young.

A Picture of Dorian Gray runs in repertory with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead through Nov. 16 at A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. For exact times, dates and more info: (636)356-3121; www.anoisewithin.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based film historian/criticEd Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ ).