In Diversions and Delights, Germinal Stage actor-director Ed Baierlein gives us a broken Oscar Wilde. The man who delighted in shocking London, the poseur who walked along the Strand holding a flower, the writer who told an American customs official that he had nothing to declare but his genius, the wit who attracted large audiences to his aphoristic lectures, the author of The Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, is now seen heavily rouged, wearing an improbable black wig and drinking glass after glass of absinthe.
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As most readers now know, Wilde was destroyed by Victorian prudery. Egged on by his lover -- the beautiful, petulant Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he called Bosie -- Wilde entered into a disastrous lawsuit against Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, because the older man had written a note calling him a sodomite. The laws of the time being what they were, Wilde soon found himself on trial for homosexuality. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and the experience destroyed him mentally and physically. On his release, having lost everything including his wife and children, he created one of the saddest and most sincere pieces of writing of his lifetime, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." He died some three years later, penurious and alone, in a seedy Paris hotel room -- though he supposedly rallied his sense of humor sufficiently to comment in extremis, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do."
Baierlein's Wilde is in physical pain. He bleeds from his ear, and stands, with the help of a stick, at an uncomfortably odd sideways angle. In the play's first act, he gives us what Wilde's audiences always came for, a flood of witticisms, and now and then a parable or snatch of verse, beautifully and movingly spoken. But by the second act, his anguish is palpable. It pulsates through the story he tells about the terrified ten-year-old boy he heard crying alone in his prison cell night after night. A warden gave the child, who was unable to eat, a couple of his own sweet biscuits and was fired for his kindness.
Diversions and Delights
2450 West 44th Avenue
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through March 4, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
Wilde's philosophy, his love of beauty, determined frivolity and insistence that art outshines nature, cannot sustain him as the silence and darkness close in. In his simpering, upper-class drawl, he delivers a blistering critique of religious hypocrisy.
Baierlein submerges himself in the role, holding the stage with effortless authority for the two hours of John Gay's play, communicating as much with his gestures, silences and hesitations as with the lines. He shows us how Wilde must have once scintillated in society, and how difficult it has become for him to continue to entertain. We pity him, though we don't exactly empathize. There's a lifetime of passion misspent in the way Baierlein says two words, "Dear Bosie," and he says them more than once -- with anger, sarcasm, love and loss.