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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
A conversation with his good friend George Erskine (Eric Brooks) infects Wilde (Marc Geller) with the itch to pursue this intellectual romp. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the "only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W. H." was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, Erskine's friend Cyril Graham (Greg Feldon) had become convinced a decade ago that it was actually the poor actor Willie Hughes (also Feldon). Amused but not convinced by Graham's methodical argument, which carefully traced its logic through the sonnets, Erskine demanded concrete proof. (There was, in fact, not even evidence that an Elizabethan actor of this name ever existed.)
After a ten year hiatus, Graham returns to Erskine with his proof: an old portrait of Willie, pointing to the dedication page of the Sonnets. Erskine is indeed convinced until he accidentally discovers the portrait is a forgery. He confronts Graham, who admits the forgery but insists it doesn't undercut his theory. The next day, Graham is found dead.
Graham has not died in vain. Hearing all this, Wilde takes up Graham's cause, and pursues it with zeal. In Blair Fell's hands, it becomes a wild circus of lust, jealousy and love that would have left Wilde's Victorian accusers spinning out of control. But it is faithful to the sonnets: Willie, devoted focus of Shakespeare (Christopher Baker) as the sonnets open, becomes involved with Rose, the "Dark Lady" (Effie Johnson) by No. 44. Then, for 25 sonnets "smack in the middle of the 154," Shakespeare casts the boy aside and takes up with Rose himself. And the boy, for fifteen or so sonnets, becomes involved with the Bard's arch rival, Christopher Marlowe (also, to great effect, portrayed by Effie Johnson).
Wilde hovers and flits his way through Fell's telling, alternating between narrator, kibitzer and character with wit and a great deal of what could be called extravagant restraint. Fell the playwright never lets him lose us as we follow the intellectual journey. Where it ends is yet another surprise. Fell the director is far less reverent, but no less careful, punctuating the story with bursts of hysterical anachronism and leaving little (actually, practically nothing) to our romantic imagination. Full frontal nudity: forewarned is forearmed.
Playwright-directors often lose their way. Not Fell: he steers his fine acting ensemble right to their destination with precious few wrong turns. Marc Geller captures Wilde's temperament perfectly so that, even though he may not be physically perfect, we don't even notice. He understands the fine line between the outrageous and the ridiculous, and never crosses it. Eric Brooks is equally on target in his refined, thoroughly Victorian portrayal of Erskine. Greg Felden is equally convincing behind Cyril Graham's spectacles or as the oft-dressed and undressed Willie Hughes. Christopher Baker's Shakespeare begins a bit wobbly, but redeems himself as his character takes on more life.
Effie Johnson is left alone to compete with these four men. She is more than up to the task, dexterous enough to aggressively pursue her man of the moment whether she is wearing the bawdy red of the Dark Lady or the more muted but flamboyant pants of Marlowe. She seems to know she is the play's extravagance, and exploits the license. But she is also able to throttle down several notches to render two dutiful women, Mrs. Merton and Lady Erskine.
David Ripp's book-laden set is great, and he (or someone) has done a fine job with both Elizabethan and Victorian costumes and wigs, especially for the boy! Equally impressive is the meticulous way in which music has been integrated into this play.