The Wilde Life | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Wilde Life

Two local updates of Oscar Wilde classics explore one of his most durable themes: the power of secrets.

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Dorian

Bailiwick Repertory

An Ideal Husband

Pretty Blue Sky

Oscar Wilde was the preeminent satirist of Victorian society, but his stories and plays endure because their dilemmas still resonate. No writer dramatized the pleasures and pitfalls of secrecy more powerfully than he did. Wilde--whose career was ruined when his homosexuality came to light in 1895--saw the need to hide one's secret self as a fundamental aspect of the human condition; his characters go to extraordinary lengths to conceal their true natures. "What Dorian Gray's sins are no one knows," Wilde wrote in defense of his controversial 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. "Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray."

In the novel, handsome libertine Dorian Gray becomes the living emblem of a "new hedonism" advocated by his decadent mentor, Lord Harry Wotton. Mysteriously, as the years pass and his misdeeds mount, Dorian never ages, nor does he show signs of guilt or worry. But a painting of him hidden in his attic shows him growing old and ugly, its increasingly cruel visage reflecting his escalating corruption. As his obsession with the accusing canvas grows, Dorian spirals into self-destruction.

Dorian, director-choreographer-writer Tommy Rapley's imaginative, homoerotic new dance-theater adaptation, updates the story to 1980s America--think Bret Easton Ellis's novel Less Than Zero and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's video for "Relax." Rapley and coauthor Ben Lobpries have paraphrased or trimmed most of Wilde's literate prose, replacing it with distinctly un-Wildean dialogue like "Wow! Is that really what I look like?" and "He's so hot. Is he queer?" But this visually striking production captures the tale's essence. Employing dance, mime, and stylized gesture, it focuses on Dorian, Harry, and artist Basil Hallward, whose portrait of Dorian--a gift from the infatuated painter to his self-absorbed model--unleashes a curse. The dynamic is symbolic of the human condition, with Dorian caught between his best and worst instincts--or, in religious terms, between a tempting devil and a loving but disappointed God.

The other important figure in Dorian is the painting itself, which comes to life to encourage Dorian's wickedness, even to assist him in murder. Dancer Kevin Simmons twists his classically proportioned torso into monstrous contortions while wearing a series of increasingly grotesque masks. This is by far the creepiest stage or screen version of Dorian Gray I've seen, including the 1945 Albert Lewin film featuring the famous Ivan Albright painting that hangs at the Art Institute--it's like watching a Caravaggio canvas turn into a Francis Bacon horror show.

With his blandly pretty schoolboy looks, Jamie Abelson makes a perfect Dorian, cool and enigmatic even when he's callously dumping his actress girlfriend because she's not the perfect Juliet (she kills herself as a result), blackmailing an ex-boyfriend, committing murder, or dancing a dangerous pas de deux with his own portrait. Danny Starr and Patrick Andrews are excellent as serpentine Harry and earnest Basil. Collette Pollard's simple set, Lee Keenan's lighting, Debbie Baer's dandyish costumes, Tracy Otwell's porcelainlike masks, and Kevin O'Donnell's moody techno sound track all enhance the impact of this provocative 90-minute one-act.

Staid government official Sir Robert Chiltern, the title character in Wilde's 1895 An Ideal Husband, seems a far cry from Dorian Gray. Admired for his model marriage and public virtue ("A man who can't talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician"), Chiltern is haunted by a guilty secret: his wealth comes from a crooked scheme involving stolen government secrets. ("Private information is practically the source of every large modern fortune," he explains.) When a woman with a past threatens to expose him, his friend, social butterfly Lord Goring, must outwit the beautiful blackmailer while persuading Chiltern's wife to stick by him.

In its debut production, the Pretty Blue Sky theater cleverly resets the action to 1930, recalling Noel Coward and Philip Barry. But the concept is undermined by a cheap set, thrift-store costumes, clunky staging, and the actors' sometimes deadly lack of comic timing. Worse, they pay more attention to their affected gestures than to the desperate conflicts beneath the script's mannered facade: this is a case of too much playacting, too little acting.

Yet this novice company wins kudos for its ambitious, intelligent choice of material. An Ideal Husband has plenty to say about political corruption and about the "weakness, or worse than weakness," that each person hides, separating people from one another instead of forging a bond of commonality. "Life cannot be understood without much charity, cannot be lived without much charity," as Goring says. Though Wilde mocked conventional morality as "the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike," he was driven by a deep moral sense.

Dorian

WHEN: Through 9/3: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3:30 PM

WHERE: Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont

PRICE: $25

INFO: 773-883-1090

An Ideal Husband

WHEN: Through 9/2: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

WHERE: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport

PRICE: $10-$12

INFO: 312-902-1500

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Beth Othero, David G. Zak.

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