Monday, March 25, 2013

Fragments of Oscar Wilde

Spoilers Ahoy!

This week marks something of a marathon--four plays to review within five days. Not that I complain! But it ends up putting me in a contemplative, some might say pretentiously pedantic mood.

So be it!

Fragments of Oscar Wilde comes across as a very personal and rather experimental idea by writer/director Vanessa Cate. Something about Oscar Wilde does seem to stir something like that from authors. Years ago I saw a play about his life, in which his imprisonment for sodomy was intercut with scenes from both The Importance of Being Earnest (with the warden as Lady Bracknell) and the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Patience (which made fun of him), other prisoners doing the chorus. Twas fun!

Photo: Vanessa Cate
In this case, Ms. Cate combined scenes from several Wilde works to create a theatrical montage of scenes along a theme--the relationship between love and art and life. She took several opening scenes from the novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray, a bit of La Sainte Courtisane, another bit from Salome, The Nightingale and the Rose, and the uncompleted play A Florentine Tragedy.

Honestly the flow between the different sections of the piece sometimes seem a little ragged, but the writing itself unites the different elements. Just to keep us on our toes, she also finds ways to surprise us. The very first scene shows La Courtisane (Anastasia Charalambous) reading about a character from Portrait, Lord Henry--who instead of a jaded older gentleman (I've seen John Guilgud and Colin Firth play him) turns out to be an attractive young woman! More, one who looks rather like a cherub or maybe Nancy Drew--if either one had somehow acquired an extremely jaded palate towards life (Taylor Solomon).

Photo: Vanessa Cate
Likewise the speech of Salome towards the dead John the Baptist's mouth ends up delivered by three women towards the audience, dancing together and sharing a long red cape (Natalie Hyde, Stephanie Giles, Rebecca Watson). About two years ago I reviewed a production of this specific play and it frankly was better done in this instance.

Now I'm going to get pretentious and pedantic. You have been warned!

The whole show has a few problems--the single biggest one is the lack of vocal training by the cast. Honestly, this remains a pervasive complaint I have with nearly all theatre I go and see. But it really stands out when the language doesn't even pretend at any naturalism. Wilde's speech is and remains arch, witty and sophisticated. We Americans rarely learn how to do that. In this show the quality of vocal performance varies quite a bit. A few actors fall into the trap of (evidently) thinking speed and volume equals passion. No. Worse, a couple have trouble with parts of speech (rule of thumb--anyone who places the stress on pronouns over and over and over again has not mastered the art of speaking). A few show weak consonants, which is actually very easy to overcome by practice. Really--do some tongue twisters a few times a day for three weeks and the results will astonish!

Photo: Vanessa Cate
But these problems--which remain very common--get some nice compensation in the actual production. For one thing, the leads do quite well. Secondly, Zombie Joe's is a "black box" theatre so we can easily hear actors. As the great director Peter Brooks once noted, the quieter a character speaks the easier it is for them to find the emotional truth.

Also the director did something very clever in casting. The cast as a whole all demonstrated genuine stage presence. Each took command of the stage simply by entering, standing, walking or exiting. No small feat. All in some really fundamental way radiated their character, even looking at things and listening in ways their characters would. Again--NO SMALL THING.

Finally the movements conveyed a great deal. I happen to know that a few members of the cast (I've seen them in other things) are dancers or at least studied dance. So too the Director, and the various movements throughout conveyed a great deal. No fidgeting, no remaining rigidly still, no uncontrolled awkward business. Bravo! For example, an actress at the very beginning has a lovely piece of material wrapped around her. While exiting, she simply lets it drop, revealing a brief flash of nudity. Very simple and elegant. Likewise a sword fight almost looked real (they had foils and moved as if they were sabres--but how many folks would ever know that?) and certainly looked NOT AT ALL AWKWARD. Most sword fights on stage look wrong, Very wrong. One at San Francisco's ACT was actually embarrassing!

Photo: Vanessa Cate
So in the end I find myself very glad to have attended, genuinely moved by what I saw, and left pondering the dramatic sonnet Ms. Cate created for us. Wilde was never an author to tell you what to think--one reason Victorian society (and our own) found him so daunting. He drew connections, showed consequences, did not stint on the details the story naturally presented. Fragments of Oscar Wilde and the cast that present it do a find job of capturing all that bittersweet irony, the melancholy beauties, the musings by an artist upon art (and not necessarily to be taken entirely seriously).

Fragments of Oscar Wilde plays Saturday Nights at 8:30 March 23 thru May 18 (no show April 6) at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA Call 818-202-4120 for reservations.

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