Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Amusing and Dark “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Brandon Simmons in The Picture of Dorian Gray (John Ulman)

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through July 1, 2018

If you know a little about the story of Dorian Gray, maybe you’ve heard of the novel about a man who doesn’t age and a portrait of him that does. Oscar Wilde, better known as a playwright in Britian in the late 1800s, wrote the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in a serial fashion which caught literary fancy and also was decried for destroying morality.

Book-It Repertory Theatre has taken a stab at turning Wilde’s novel into a play, which is an amusing switch for Wilde’s history. This adaptation by Judd Parkin is less “Book-It” in style, which uses a lot of narrative as dialogue, possibly because Wilde wrote so theatrically with a lot of conversation. Certainly, the adaptation flows extremely well.

It’s also much more amusing than I expected from what I knew to be a dark story: A young Dorian Gray (Chip Sherman) is painted by a besotted (gay) painter, Basil Hallward (Jon Lutyens). Influenced by notorious Lord Henry Wotton (Brandon J. Simmons), Gray is drawn to “free spirit” ideals. Lord Henry leads Gray to honor youth and beauty and when Gray sees his beauteous young painting, Gray wishes that somehow he could remain ever young and the painting could age in his stead.

Of course, far from encouraging the downfall of society, Wilde’s tale is a morality play about hedonistic debauchery going wrong. Even as Gray discovers that the painting ages – and reflects his inner evil – and he does not, he visits the worst heroin dens and follows the worst lifestyle. We know he’s heading for a fall at some point.

Wilde was a well-known homosexual and paid significantly for that wide knowledge. He wrote the novel at age 26! And he followed a “free” lifestyle to a certain extent in that he openly sought the company of men. But he was subjected to criminal prosecution and jailed, and died penniless at 46.

One of the aspects I enjoyed the most in this production was the meticulous “style” that director Victor Pappas employed at every turn. The “Greek chorus” of servants, friends, society members, etc. played by Ian Bond, Anastasia Higham, Imogen Love, Jon Stutzman, and Michael Patten, were directed to heighten the ambiance with, for instance, sighing breath noises when the painting was revealed, all while creepily peering forward as Sherman approached the painting.

Simmons as Lord Henry employed a specific vocalization that added “pomp” and upper-crust-ness to his accent that amped up the amusing characterization. It can only be described as “a hoot” to watch him. While he took himself totally seriously (as all good comic characters should), his arch indifference to people and how he affected them was much fun.

Additionally, the atmospherics of the technical support, from the empty cave of the painting frame (allowing the audience to imagine any beautiful young man they like) by Pete Rush to the moody lighting from Andrew D. Smith, enhanced that stylistic choice made by Pappas. The creepiness was also presented just slightly tongue-in-cheek so the darkness was lightened by humor.

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