The Rogue Theatre seems an appropriate place for revealing a new adaptation of Oscar Wilde's only novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Christopher Johnson, a regular on Rogue's stage, but directing here for the first time, adapted this version.
It's a bold move, both for Johnson and for The Rogue. An adaptation of such a well-known piece of fiction is an ambitious and risky undertaking. But Wilde himself was quite the rogue, and many of us know his works for the theater. Rogue's leaders were so impressed with the Dorian Gray-as-play idea that they have decided to produce it as a summer offering, which had really not been in their plans at all. But The Rogue is not a group that shies away from new and challenging material.
There is much to be admired in what we see on The Rogue's stage. Johnson has made great use of Wilde's amazingly witty and cutting words, both as dialogue and as narration. He has envisioned a staging of the story in a simple visual style, a good choice. The set, which he designed, is basically a tiered black platform, the levels of which serve to indicate various places and settings. There really are no props; most actions are suggested by a simple sort of pantomime. This works quite well; the focus is always on the actors and their interactions. There is no clutter visually.
There is, however, one sparse but prominent element to the set which is in view at all times. It's the large, empty frame which represents Dorian's (Dani Dryer) portrait. However, it holds no actual painting. Characters see the portrait, which the painter Basil Hallward (Evan Werner) has worked with passion to bring to life, and they give us an idea of the magnificence of Dorian's representation. Unseen literally by us, who are free to project our own ideas of what the images might be, it is then "transformed" to reflect the changes of Gray's devolving character—his selfishness, disrespectful and even criminal behavior, opium-addicted, reviled by many—while he, the actual person, stays as young and handsome as he was when the portrait was painted.
We see those changes only through the eyes of others, and mostly those of Gray himself, who finally cannot stand what the portrait tells him about who he has become.
One of the many interesting choices Johnson has made was casting Dryer, a woman, as Dorian. It is an interesting choice. It's certainly not distracting, and it does add a dimension, though what that dimension is, is not easily named. Part of the issue is that we don't really get to know Dorian in the way we often do with characters in other plays, and, therefore, it's difficult to connect or disconnect with him. We hear about him in the exchanges of other characters and in narration, and we see snippets of his actions in brief scenes, but there is never really demonstrated a charisma or an evil arising from deep with the character. Dryer seems at a loss at times to know how best to let us know what is happening within Dorian that might attract or appall us.
To be fair, I don't really think that this is a problem with Dryer as much as it is with the way the story is told. Johnson has chosen a very sparse way to bring the story to life, partly because of the necessity of compression of time. But it's really more than that. What we see is the arc of the story, but with few frills. The consequence is really a very impressionistic presentation of the tale. That, along with the tone Johnson sets for the piece, results in a very stylistic sense of the story, which is by no means necessarily a bad thing. But it does tend to keep us at an emotional distance, even though we are engaged and intrigued. Often we are told rather than shown.
The small cast is a good one, with some actors portraying several characters, as well as delivering narration. Besides Dryer and Werner, Ryan Parker Knox, Dylan Page and Matt Bowdren perform admirably. Joseph McGrath plays Lord Henry Wooton who, in addition to having a complicated relationship with Dorian Gray, gets to deliver some of Wilde's most delicious words by which he delivers his critical comments about the society of Victorian England—witty, sardonic, cutting and very funny. Pianist Anton Faynberg provides live music throughout the show, adding a great dimension to the production.
There are numerous threads of Wilde's ideas about art and artists, reflecting his allegiance to the movement of aestheticism, beauty and hypocrisy. They run both within the obvious text and the not so obvious subtext. Johnson pays them due, but we find ourselves wanting to ponder and relish these ideas more than we are able to within the economy of the play.
But we do get what seems to be the heart of Wilde's thinking. We cannot ignore or try to escape who we are without serious consequences. We are by nature bound to be changed as we journey down the path of our lives. The way we chose to negotiate our journey will leave its mark. To deny that we must walk that path and that our actions must have consequences may be an attractive, youthful idea, just as it struck Gray. But refusing to be who we truly are as we grapple with the challenges of our lives in its many stages ultimately destroys us. Our public faces may not be the ones we see when we look at our own faces, our "portraits," in the mirror. How do we reckon with that?