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Oscar Wilde: From the Depths — Lantern Theater

from the depths -- cover 2Oscar Wilde had a life of extremes.

The reputation that lasts, quite appropriately, is that of writer of grand flair and ostentatious wit who could craft an aphorism or bon mot, perhaps on the spot, that would elicit laughter immediately and for ages.

The companion image, also appropriate, is of a grand boulevardier who lived lavishly beyond his means and vaunted style over substance as he dined exquisitely, enjoyed fine wine, and dressed to be noticed.

Wilde is the un-rugged individualist who flaunts society’s conventions by ignoring them in practice and satirizing them in literature. He is an entity unto himself, the symbol of the bon vivant who can be extravagant and flamboyant but known for his taste and discrimination. His best characters, the ones that aren’t stuffy like Lady B., all have impeccable taste and discrimination (John Worthing, Lord Goring, Lord Windermere, etc.).

He is also someone destined to live in degradation as a prisoner, moralistically scorned by a general public that either adored or had no reason to take notice of him. His crime is gross indecency based on having intimate relationships with people of the same gender, homosexuality, a similar offense to the one World War II cryptographic hero Alan Turing would face and be subjected to 60 years later.

Though homosexuality continues to be an occasional political hot potato, the modern Western world views it as matter-of-fact preference, primarily biological but sometimes selected, that is nobody’s business but the participants’. The idea that someone could go to jail for practicing it seems preposterous, even though such incarceration may have taken place within the late years of the last century, the 20th.

The 19th century is a different kettle of brine. Victorian prudery, or at least the polite public pretense of it, allowed for moralistic laws. Like the judge that sentenced Wilde to two years at labor, and regretted the law precluded him from being more severe, the average British citizen, who is not Frank Harris or Robbie Ross or even Bosie Douglas, would at least say he or she was appalled by Wilde’s scandalous acts. Time has become sensible about the prevalence and acceptance of homosexuality, in societies that have kept up with civilization, but Oscar Wilde did not live in such a time, and he paid the stupid penalty of a less enlightened era.

Wilde is guilty of stupidity as well. Stupidity in the form of stubbornness, in terms of staying in England and facing the legal music when he could have escaped to France, and stupidity in the form of trusting common sense to prevail and entering any court of law, anywhere at any time, and not feeling contempt for the proceedings. People may not go to jail for homosexuality in Britain or the U.S. today, but there are other laws that are just as smarmy and can cast the honest and non-predatory in prison as quickly, and as moralistically, as Her Majesty’s court flung Oscar Wilde into jail, ending his illustrious career as a playwright and considerably shortening his life. Wilde was age 46 when he died in Paris in November 1900. Don’t you just love justice?

The dichotomy of Wilde’s existence has been the stuff of much drama. The 1960 movie, “Oscar Wilde,” with Robert Morley in the title role, and John Neville as Bosie, is the first script I remember about Wilde’s homosexual life and the prosecution it fomented. Recent years have been chocked full of works about Wilde, Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency” and Theodore Morrison and John Cox’s opera, “Osca,r” being two of the best. Lantern Theater’s Charles McMahon has added to the Wilde canon with an original work, “Oscar Wilde: From the Depths.” The results are mixed.

McMahon takes his subject seriously, and that is the problem that keeps “Oscar Wilde: From the Depths” weighted unbudgingly to the ground instead of soaring in a way to capture both our empathy and imagination.

McMahon is complete in both his research and his choice to show Wilde deteriorating in Readin:g Gaol and in the rooms where he and Bosie carried on their romance. He wisely uses broad passages from “De Profundis,” which Wilde composed in Reading in 1897, as dialogue and includes an occasional passage from a Wilde play. He clearly shows Wilde’s options and choices and, of course, makes a point to note the misspelling of sodomite (somdomite) by Wilde’s accuser, Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, on the calling card that begins Wilde’s foray into folly. (Yes, that Marquess of Queensberry, of boxing fame.)

McMahon is careful and thorough, but he falls into a major trap from which “Oscar Wilde: From the Depths” cannot extricate itself, even in his more engaging and interesting passages.

He doesn’t know how to take his material lightly. His play, and M. Craig Getting’s direction of it, are laden in the same self-consciousness that made and defeated Oscar Wilde.

Neither McMahon nor Getting seem to have a sense of balance, a surprising circumstance considering most of their usual work as directors. You want the horrors Wilde faces in prison to be dramatic. You want the oppression he endures, the reaction of guards and warders who place moralism and punishment above any individuality, the unattended illness that weakens Wilde, and most of all, the revelation he has when he realizes authority doesn’t let you just sit in a cell at your own devices but wants penance, remorse, and labor, all mindless, from you, to register with force. Wilde is a disillusioned, and delusional, man going through a harrowing time far different than anything he could expect from Victoria and her people. In the name of the British populace, he is brought to shame but is not permitted to stoically accept his fate, do his time, and move past it, but is bullied and badgered by prison officials to the point of unavoidable distraction.

McMahon’s play shows you all of this. But it lards on the cheerless, somber, dismal lugubriousness of it. His and Getting’s hands are too heavy. They don’t let you see and react to what is happening to Wilde, they push your nose in it. Everything is stark and bleak, mean and gratuitous, small and cruel. Getting goes past making an impression that lets you understand Wilde’s situation and diminishment to overreaching until his production is as overbearing as the treatment Wilde receives at Reading.

NealBoxThere is degradation, but no gradation of tone. All is harsh and hard. You get the point early, yet Getting and McMahon keep pounding it in until the images and feeling stop being effective. Even when Wilde is contemplative, as when Marc LeVasseur, in the lead role, speaks from “De Profundis” or “Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the director doesn’t let the moment rest so we can feel condolingly sorry for him. Jered McLenigan or David Bardeen, as a guard, will hit a pipe on the set as if they coming to fetch Wilde, Prisoner C.33 to them, from his cell or are going to make him stand for the sake of their own vanity and sadism.

Nothing is done by pleasing degrees. McMahon and Getting might think their fierce, forceful approach is one that will bring the message of Wilde’s ordeal home, but it doesn’t. It’s too much. There’s no art to what they’re doing. It’s an amateur’s approach.

Then there’s the volume of similar material with a similar purpose. I know. I know. I do go on and become repetitive, but a reader can skip on to another paragraph. An audience can’t. (It’s why I still prefer newspapers to television news. I can jump stories, go to different sections, and peruse headlines at will, when I want, rather than have to accept what’s served at the time a broadcaster chooses to serve it.)

McMahon endlessly covers identical territory in the same manner and the same tone. There’s no variety to “Oscar Wilde: From the Depths.” McLenigan and Bardeen must have déjá vu at they go through some of their paces as prison officials by late in the first act.

The first act is a continual problem because McMahon loads it mostly with scenes of Wilde’s imprisonment and upbraiding in court. You wonder if aspects of Wilde’s life other than his incarceration are going to come to fore. They do, but the tone of misery has already been too firmly, and lingeringly, established, so lighter scenes have no effect on your perception of McMahon’s play. Neither Bardeen’s urbane Frank Harris, obsequious prison warder, or encouraging Robbie Ross nor McLenigan’s pouty, peevish Bosie can leaven the proceedings. McMahon and Getting have strived on remitting gloom, and they’ve stamped their production with it so firmly, it cannot be saved.

The second works as such a rescue. A new prison superintendent gives Wilde books and paper and ink. We see more of Wilde with Harris, Ross, and Bosie before and just after his contretemps with Queensberry. Just as they overdo everything, McMahon and Getting have Bardeen play the Marquess as a clown from an Irish comedy (even though Queensberry is Scottish). The attempt to relax and lighten is there, but it is for naught. We are no longer watching the stage with intense interest. McMahon’s best scenes, with Wilde and Harris at a gathering that includes George Bernard Shaw, comes off as flat and de rigueur. He and Getting have squandered the chance to amuse. We watch as if we’re taking in a documentary instead of being engrossed in a play.

The sad part is Wilde’s story is being told in detail with some entirety (although it never quite addresses Constance, Wilde’s wife, and his children, there in Tite Street, except in passing). The depth and angst of his troubles are apparent. LeVasseur is successful in giving Wilde a confident, off-hand air during the brief time the writer sees the court case he initiates as joke. But it all seems like a history lesson instead of an entertainment. The involving elements of theater are absent. We’ve been chased away by heavy-handed in the first 20 minutes of “Oscar Wilde: From the Depths.” We can’t restore any kind of robust or intense attentiveness when variations and views of Wilde’s life as the toast of London theater — Shaw has not yet made his name with “The Philanderer” and “Widower’s Houses.” — emerge. McMahon’s play and Getting’s production have already registered as too dense, too tedious to either delight or move us.

The main reward for attending the production is the information you can glean about Wilde and the last years of his life, for better or worse. McMahon is a better journalist and documentarian than he is a playwright on this occasion. You thoroughly understand all that led to Wilde’s disgrace, his participation it in , and his reluctance to escape his fate by taking advantage of ready passage to Paris.

Wilde’s parents have a place in McMahon’s play. Speranza, his mother, is only heard proffering her love for her special lad. She is not seen telling Wilde she’ll disown him if he forgoes trial and goes to France to thwart prosecution. McMahon is kinder to Wilde’s rarely seen father, who offers paternal advice from a distance. McLenigan makes Wilde pere charming, a nice surprise considering how little he figures into most bioplays about Wilde.

The acting in Getting’s production is certainly competent, but David Bardeen’s character turns often stand out and have more allure than the key roles LeVasseur and McLenigan play as Wilde and Bosie.

LeVasseur is a handsome, upright Wilde. He reads McMahon’s lines well and makes no egregious mistakes in portraying the notorious Wilde.

Nor is he dashing or exciting. LeVasseur, who has done laudable work in several “Pride and Prejudices” and has rated attention at People’s Light and Bristol Riverside, has no fire here. You follow the passages he delivers from “De Profundis,” and even attend to them closely, but LeVasseur never moves you or makes you reel in injustice at Wilde’s treatment or mourn for the sadness of his plight. Like the production in general, much stays matter-of-fact. Physically, LeVasseur can show you the strain Wilde is under, his effort to resist succumbing to its negative, numbing effect, and his descent to illness and despair. Lying on his prison cot, pondering his situation, LeVasseur’s Wilde speaks volumes and elicits glimmers of empathy. Verbally, the lines are read well and yet sound recited, as if proclaimed instead of spoken, as they should be given the context of Wilde’s relationship to the Lantern audience, that of a character delivering a soliloquy, on most occasions.

LeVasseur never makes you love, feel sorry for, or even want to cuff Wilde when he won’t save his independence by leaving England. Neither does he turn you against the character or bore. There’s no Wildean esprit to contrast the horror Oscar experiences in jail. Oscar Wilde is a larger-than-life character, and LeVasseur renders him an ordinary. Not in the way of trying to portray a celebrity as his everyday, among-friends self, but in a way that doesn’t capture Wilde’s fullness, wit, and position as a life force that became self-destructive.

Bardeen is more colorful. There’s twinkle in the eyes of several of his many characters. He gives urgency to the advice of Harris and Ross, and he has a good time in his comic portrayal of the angry Marquess of Queensberry.

Jered McLenigan does well in his many ensemble parts, but as with LeVasseur, you don’t see his usual patina or shine.

The most curious incidence of this is in his portrayal of Bosie who never goes beyond being irritatingly petulant and going. This is the role McMahon gives him. This Bosie is written to be a callow, vindictive, infantile instigator, but you must still see why Wilde is attracted to him. That is hard to do when McLenigan’s Bosie is always carping, being unpleasant, or steering Oscar in the worst possible direction.

McLenigan’s Bosie lacks softness and flirtatious. The beauty is there. It’s built into McLenigan. You need to see though what would drive Oscar to sacrifice so much to please Bosie and to give the young man desired revenge against his father. It’s not on the Lantern stage. Or at least was not at the second performance after opening, the one I saw. McLenigan fares better in scenes in which he enacts Dorian Gray, who goes through a challenging grilling about his affections much as Wilde does. McLenigan and Bardeen half make you want to suspend “Oscar Wilde From the Depths” and continue with “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

David Bardeen infuses his characters with the most personality. There’s a genuine humanity, mixed with an obsequious aim to be admired by the Wilde he partially disdains, in the prison warder who grants Wilde books to read and pen and ink to compose with. He endows Frank Harris with both urgency and friendship towards Wilde. Bardeen seems more comfortable and free in his roles than his castmates.

The one superb part of Getting’s production is Lance Kniskern’s set. The upper portions of the stage, are covered with bars that look like the gates of prison cells. Kniskern has sent some of the gratings to the barber so that the lengths of some bars and uneven, and some groupings have a bar missing, as if the tooth of a comb fell out. The surface of the stage is composed of drab light gray slabs that serve equally well as playing spaces on Wilde’s prison cot. On the back wall, center, behind a complete set of jail bars is the treadmill LeVasseur labors on to indicate Wilde’s sentence to hard labor. The image is effective. You see Wilde clearly as a prisoner, locked in a cage, performing a monotonous, backbreaking task for what seems like the eight hours Wilde is assigned to do it. The image is effective and affecting.

Millie Hiibel uses a slightly darker drab gray for the prison costume LeVasseur wear for most of the production, even when it is covered with a suit jacket and cravat for the scenes before Oscar goes to prison. The costumes, in general, are dark, and Bardeen and McLenigan also wear a version of the prison garb as their general outfit. None of Oscar’s flamboyance is seen until deep into the second act when a maroon velvet smoking jacket makes a miraculous and welcome appearance. Not to cavil, but the jacket could have been tailored better. It is for Oscar Wilde, after all.

Shon Causer’s lighting matches the bleakness of the palette Gettings must have chosen. Christopher Colucci’s sound scheme is best when it underscores the dampness and dankness of Reading Gaol.

“Oscar Wilde: From the Depths” runs through Sunday, February 14, at the Lantern Theater, in St. Stephen’s Alley off of 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday, February 10. Tickets range from $39 to $34 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by visiting www.lanterntheater.org.

 

 

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