WILDE TALES (Quintessence): Where the WILDE things are

Ashton Carter and chorus in WILDE TALES. Photo by Shawn May.
Ashton Carter and chorus in WILDE TALES. Photo by Shawn May.

Oscar Wilde once wrote to a friend that his two books of fairy tales were intended “partly for children and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness.”

New to Quintessence Theatre, director Jeremy Bloom has selected and adapted five stories for this stage production of WILDE TALES. Performers include the acting ensemble and a children’s chorus. The enormously talented David Cope, who has written the music for many Quintessence productions, composed the music and wrote the songs, whose lyrics are taken from Wilde’s prison writings.

The experience of the play is like watching an illustrated storybook. Life lessons are imparted with inspired costumes (Jane Casanave), cleverly used set pieces, little toys, and cute glove puppets (Martina Plag). Yet, at times its simplified approach to acting and staging results in a kind of kindergarten recital performed by adults, and the lively show crosses the line from childlike to childish — two very different things.

Act I covers three stories:In The Happy Prince, an ultimate do-gooder uses a swallow to help him accomplish his aims. The roles are sensitively interpreted, despite the constraints of the acting style, by Mattie Hawkinson, Vanessa Sterling, and Hannah Wolff. The second story, The Nightingale and the Rose, sung by the intrepid children’s chorus and acted by the ensemble (featuring Ife Foy, Aneesa Neibauer, and Mattie Hawkinson), has wonderful lyrics, including, “Love is wiser than philosophy, ‘tho philosophy is wise.” The Selfish Giant rings a timely bell. Played by dynamic Ashton Carter, a giant builds a wall to keep the children out of his garden. One hopes that these days it is still possible, as in the story, to melt an ego-centered giant’s heart.

In Act II The Devoted Friend, which is both narrated and acted, teaches the unselfishness of true friendship by showing its outrageous opposite. Wilde’s witticisms break through in lines like, “A story with a moral is always a very dangerous thing to do,” and “I feel quite drowsy. It’s just like being in church.” Mattie Hawkinson and Aneesa Neibauer handle this one well, and Michael Gamache has a wickedly arrogant and witty Wilde edge. In the last tale Terence Gleeson amusingly and archly delivers the self-absorbed introspection of The Remarkable Rocket. The Rocket lazily observes that “Hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.”

The instructive stories with their tragic aspects do not succumb to easy, no-cost, happy endings. Had he been around when Bruno Bettelheim famously discoursed on fairytales and folk tales in The Uses of Enchantment (1976), Wilde would no doubt have concurred. Bettelheim’s main villain was the king of happy endings, Walt Disney. These days Disney-Pixar offers somewhat less sugar coating, more complex characters, darker situations… and happy endings. In staging these sentimental, yet hard tales of compassion and the beauty of self-sacrifice, Quintessence honors Oscar Wilde’s artful wit and his serious concern for social problems.

The theatre group produces shows in the remaining shell of the old Art Deco Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy. With Quintessence you never know exactly how the stage and seating will be configured, and it’s always interesting to find out. This show takes place in a two-part stage designed by Doug Greene (who is also a well known local actor). A stage platform up front is backgrounded by a separate large, colorfully decorated performance area, all lighted by Jay Ryan. Daniel Ison handles sound design.

On the night I saw the show the audience was responsive and appreciative. It was a school night, however, and the only children present were on stage. The production’s tendency to childishness is offset by the bright, pretty stage, the poetic sadness, and Wilde’s “childlike faculties of wonder.” Although tempered by high fatality rates and not a traditional Christmas show, WILDE TALES hath its charms.

[Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave, Mt. Airy]December 7-31, 2016; quintessencetheatre.org

Children’s Chorus members: Iris Allan, Tallulah Green Hull, Caleb King, Lewis King, NaAva Kimbrough, Charley Levin, Skye Thornton

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