The Oscar Wilde Experience feels like a warm evening among friends
The Oscar Wilde Experience feels less like a full-fledged theater production than a warm, pleasant evening spent with friends. The show is in the Byers-Evans House, which was built in 1883; with its dark wood furnishings, shadowy corners and shelves of old books, it provides the perfect backdrop for an evening of Wilde's poems and stories. These have been stitched together by producer Maggie Stillman and directed by Wade P. Wood — who himself was steeped in Victoriana for six years, when he operated the late, lamented Denver Vic. Most of us have encountered Wilde primarily through his plays — The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance — or his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray or "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," easily the best of his poems. So the less-known pieces assembled for this production provide new pleasures and discoveries.
Although The Importance of Being Earnest crackles with wit and the author's infectious delight in mocking convention, Wilde was a true Victorian and a sentimentalist to the core. So The Oscar Wilde Experience gives us apple blossoms and roses, nightingales, silver stars, women with lily-white necks and young men with hyacinth curls. In all honesty, the poems aren't great; you've only to compare them with the work of such contemporaries as Tennyson, Browning and Christina Rossetti to see their weaknesses. But they are pretty, and they do conjure a mood.
"The Nightingale and the Rose" is a lovely piece that fully communicates the flavor of Wilde's prose. It tells the story of a young man whose beloved has promised to dance with him if he gives her a red rose, but he is unable to find one. The nightingale hears his laments and decides to help. She approaches a rose bush whose blossoms have withered: "'If you want a red rose,' said the Tree, 'you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart's-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.'
"'Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,' cried the Nightingale, 'and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?'"
Another of the stories concerns the love between a swallow that has lighted on a gold-and-jewel-encrusted statue of the Happy Prince en route to Egypt for the winter. No longer happy as he was in life, the Prince is grieving over the sadness and poverty he sees in the city, and he asks the bird to help him distribute his jewels to those in need, including an impoverished poet and a little match girl. You can't help but see a metaphor for the love that dares not speak its name in the bond between bird and statue.
The funniest story is the last of the evening. "The Canterville Ghost" has inspired several movie and television shows; a cartoon version featuring the voices of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, aka House, is in the works. In a wonderful spoof of ghost stories, a brash American family moves into a haunted English house and proceeds to drive the resident phantom crazy. They refuse to fear him. When he rattles chains, they offer lubricant. When he leaves hideous bloodstains on the floor, they swab them up with efficient cleaning products.
This production features some satisfying performances, particularly Stillman's nightingale and Brandon Palmer's bright-eyed, head-cocking swallow; Mike Pearl provides expressive narration. But it's Joey Wishnia as the Canterville Ghost who steals the evening, conjuring up dastardly plots and reeling at the family's imperturbability, until he's finally rescued by — who else? — a pure-hearted young virgin.
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