The world premiere of Roberto
Aguirre-Sacasa's The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Round House Theatre gets its season going with a bang in a
provocative modern adaptation of the novel by Oscar Wilde (running to 10/4). Reset in the world of London, Europe, and
Los Angeles from 1988 to the present, the play also pays homage (as did Wilde) to the bible of decadence, A Rebours
(Against the Grain), by J.K. Huysmans, a modernist novel par excellence that was much admired by artists of all stripes
in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Picture, a two-act
work, has been written like a screenplay with over 30 scenes, and the artistic choices have been largely determined (perhaps
over determined) by the script. The rapidly shifting episodes are achieved with the aid of James Kronzer's ingenious
double revolve mostly gray and paint-spattered set, which works spectacularly with the lighting of Daniel MacLean Wagner,
stylish costumes of Helen Huang, and the sound, including original music by Mathew Nielson, which plays throughout; but the
action is fully realized by the very patient direction of Blake Robison, carefully blocking the scenes and unlocking the subtext.
The resulting achievement is first and foremost a spectacle. You'll have to decide whether it works
for you (for me, I'm still not sure), but everything has been thrown into the hopper in the service of this play, which
features many, many (many) actions which would limit the attendance of anyone under 17 and will challenge the mores of anyone
Aguirre-Sacasa's fast-paced, cautionary tale initially unfolds in the budding contemporary art scene
of Britain. Basil Hallwood (Clinton Brandhagen) has painted a portrait - perhaps the defining portrait of an age - of
Dorian Gray (Roderick Hill) which captures the imagination of Harry Wotton (Sean Dugan) and everyone who sees it, including
the sitter. It is a timeless ideal that Basil has apprehended, a work that seems destined to remain youthful and frozen
in time while the subject grows old and decrepit, causing Dorian to utter the fateful lines that he would give anything if
it were the other way around. Be careful what you ask for!
Wotton, an entrepreneurial art dealer, who
as Wilde's mouthpiece grabs and delivers the best lines, immediately seizes an opportunity to display the work along with
the serial paintings, by a group of young artists, of a bullet about to penetrate the brain of a human subject. The
sensibility, if not philosophy, of art-for-art's sake has moved from an era of contemplation to confrontation, with the
aim of getting the audience into the act: the theatricality of an exhibition and lifestyle of the artist have replaced
the work in-itself. The art, creator, and viewing public have all merged into one event horizon.
meets up and falls in love with Sybil Vane (Julia Proctor), an aspiring actress, a recurring motif becomes plain. The
three principal characters are trying to create works of art out each other: both Basil and Harry fashioning Dorian who in
turn attempts the same with Sybil, himself, and later Karen Oliver (Ms. Proctor again in the last of five roles). The
rub is the artist is caught in the force field of his creation.
The playwright is not immune to this phenomenon.
Myths and their reworking abound. There's the obvious Pygmalion allusion, while the rapid shifting of Dorian's
moods will have you thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the quest for eternal youth and the mantle of invulnerability
will light up many storytelling pathways. What begins as a morality play of sorts, morphs into a tale of the supernatural
and a horror story, and what starts out as a satire on contemporary art, skips to a send-up of LA and the movie business,
a skewering of literary criticism, and a withering social critique. Along the way the bodies will pile up and your suspension
of disbelief will be sorely tested.
Act 2 is a blur of somewhat disjointed activity as the author attempts to develop
and resolve his own treatment of the tale while remaining somewhat (surprisingly) faithful to Wilde's storyline.
All of the major elements are preserved - some clarified, others improved upon - while the echoes of the original epigrams
are heard throughout.
Dorian is a difficult character to warm up to on any level and Mr. Hill has his work
cut out for him. The character possesses a classic borderline personality disorder; and as a woman's (and man's)
worst nightmare), he is The Psychopath Next Door. He has none of the saving graces of literary rogues of
the past, say, Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley - you will not root for Dorian at any time - but you may be strangely attracted
to his foregone fate, much as one watches an oncoming train wreck. He's not the Dorian in my mind's eye, and
the potential charm of swaying those around him is neither in the script nor in the performance. Mr. Hill brings
tentativeness to the characterization, and while in keeping with the blank slate of his persona, it is not entirely satisfying.
Julia Proctor's quintuplet of roles was certainly the most challenging of the cast, not made easier by the necessity
of repeated disrobing. She captured the emotional depths of Sybil's betrayal, the empty hedonism of Christina, and
the casting couch matter-of-factness of Karen.
Stellar performances were turned in by Mr. Dugan
as Harry and Kaytie Morris as both Vickie and Ginger. Mr. Dugan is totally compelling each and every moment he is on
stage. His world weariness, ironic posturing, yet always opportunistic demeanor are on display non-stop, a Wildean comportment
worthy of the master himself. Ms. Morris is a most accomplished comedienne who wowed the audience with her droll and
aspic wit as Vickie and fawning and seemingly brainless banter as talk show host Ginger.
Joel Reuben Ganz was a necessary
ingredient in the first act, energizing the action with every appearance as Alan Campbell, one of the boys, and Sibyl's
brother James. Mr. Ganz delivered the two accomplished working class portrayals with comic and menacing conviction:
one who knows what he likes (Alan), the other who knows what he doesn't (James).
Mr. Brandhagen as Basil
gave a convincing portrayal of artistic sensitivity in his life and love, courting then being thwarted by his muse. And
Timothy Andrés Pabon rounded out the cast with his short but versatile performances in five situational character roles.
As a world premiere, the script and production will likely change and it will be interesting to see how it develops
going forward. Nonetheless the decision to update The Picture is a most welcome one, and if not completely
realized artistically, is fully justified. The script is ambitious, contains good dialogue (what the playwright selected
from Wilde's grab bag of wit and what he created), provides insight into both plot and character, and does justice to
the themes, especially the incremental problem of evil. Together, with the fine acting of Messrs. Dugan and Ganz and
Ms. Morris, the outstanding design, and the opportunity to see The Picture reloaded makes this a recommended play.
Sound check: Moderate to high sound levels between numerous scene changes - some within scenes - with gunshots,
strong emotional outbursts, and the use of some sound effects, particularly in the second act.
Program notes: Very
good, with director's and playwright's notes, might have benefited from input from dramaturgy as would the script.
Website needs a makeover.
Applause meter: Recommended, 3 hands; be advised the play contains male and female nudity,
sex, drugs, and rock and roll and more
Runtime: About 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission
Copyright by John F. Glass September 16, 2009
All rights reserved