Oscar Wilde fascinates to this day, with his brilliant work and tragic arc. Lantern Theater Company’s artistic director, Charles McMahon must be a researcher at heart, for the tragedy he takes on reveals his academic and studious approach to his subject. Among his sources are The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis, the really long letter Wilde wrote to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie, while he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol.
In the letter Wilde writes about what he had lost, what he had found, and the evolution in his character, but it is also full of recrimination. He identifies Bosie, who pressured him to take reckless action against his hated father, as the cause of his grim situation. Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had accused Wilde of impersonating a sodomite.
Against his lawyer’s pleading, Wilde (Marc LeVasseur) enters the fray, fighting Bosie’s battle, pressing charges and boldly tangling with the vengeful Queensberry. With no irons in the fire, Wilde ends up in jail, sentenced for gross indecency.
McMahon concentrates on the fact that even as the vise of the criminal court closed in, there were still opportunities for escape. He addresses in flashbacks the crucial time when Oscar’s friends, his lawyer, and no doubt his own better judgment desperately plead with him to flee England. There’s time to go to France. The message is clear: Get out. But Oscar doesn’t.
In staying Wilde contributes to his own downfall. While he claims to embrace the only fate he would have written for himself, he also asks himself why he didn’t run. Therein lies the crux of the play.
Wilde, incarcerated, silenced, and coping with brutal guards as his health fails, remembers the trial process. In act one the characters, tightly directed by M. Craig Getting, dispense information in myriad, almost overlapping, sketched exchanges that demand close attention. This crowded procedural,intended to provide a framework for understanding the rest of the play, is dense and in need of air bubbles.
Finally, sparks fly in fascinating brief exchanges, among them Wilde’s tete a tetes with Whistler (David Bardeem). These come closest to showing hints of Wilde’s winking and outrageous impertinence. Both men come alive – but Whistler comes off the stronger of the two.
As cruel deprivation continues at Lantern’s atmospheric Reading Gaol, act two opens with more theater played out in Wilde’s mind. Yet where evidence of his blazing contrarian humor at the top of his game might be anticipated, things begin to bog down in ponderous soliloquy.
Marc LeVasseur makes a fine looking Wilde. Lovely and well spoken, he gives his character everything the script calls for. But this Wilde, in extremity and minus his once outré expansiveness, provides more recitation than heat or light.
David Bardeem and Jered McLenigan play the many other parts — the vicious, remorseless guards, also Bosie, Queensberry, assorted friends, officers of the court, characters from Wilde’s plays, and phantoms. These actors are so good you would be excused for thinking they suffer from multiple personality disorder. As roles shift and give way to each other, audience attention is inevitably drawn away from the characters themselves to admire the mechanics and nuances the actors employ to distinguish one character from another. But it’s theatrical.
Lance Kniskern’s multi-leveled set design is a wonder. The prison’s concrete-like floor sections allow for multiple levels of reality and imagination. The back wall is heavily barred, and around the sides cutaway prison bars descend part way down from the ceiling. Like memories breaking through cement, exposed areas of tile and parquet flooring are scattered here and there on the prison floor. Light shines up from floor grids, while light beams from above break up like rays and shower down.
Within these wretched (yet beautifully realized) surroundings, McMahon makes a beeline for the heart of the issue, working with sources, his own contributions, and the spirit of Wilde’s letter. But the search loses steam as Wilde, long stripped of glittering flamboyance, discourses at length about a number of things, still wondering why he was indifferent to his fate and suggesting that there is meaning and beauty in sorrow.
[Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts.] January 14–February 14, 2016; lanterntheatre.org