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A CurtainUp Review
Naked Will
by Les Gutman

The trouble is that one of the few things that scholars know about Shakespeare, apart from real estate transactions, minor lawsuits and the bequeathing of his second-best bed to his wife, is that [Sonnet No. 18, 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?'] is one of a group of 126 sonnets apparently written [not to Viola de Lesseps, the character memorably portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love, but...] to a fair-haired, wealthy young man.---Stephen Greenblatt, professor of Literature at Harvard and General Editor of The Norton Shakespeare, -- New York Times Op-Ed, 2/6/99
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
(from Sonnet No. 53)
Well, there you have it, the truth. And while Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (the able screenwriters of Shakespeare in Love) will not go to jail for telling a lie, a century ago, when Oscar Wilde got two years at hard labor, a story much more closely approximating the truth was used as evidence against him. The offending short story, "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," deciphers the enigmatic identity of Shakespeare's muse by following the Bard through the paces with a pretty-boy actor by the name of Willie Hughes. Blair Fell, best known for his seriously good but campy sendups of Siamese twins (From the Hip) and nuns (The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun), now turns his attention to this more substantial subject. Appropriating Wilde's sometimes turgid short story as his starting point, Fell brilliantly applies his "treatment" to produce an expansive, funny yet surprisingly intelligent and complete staging of the debate. That using Oscar Wilde and his words as the source material for a play has been popular in the last few years is an understatement, but rarely has it been more successful.

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.

by Blair Fell, based on "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." by Oscar Wilde plus other material 
Directed by Blair Fell 
with Christopher Baker, Eric Brooks, Greg Felden, Marc Geller and Effie Johnson 
Production/Set Design: David Ripp 
Lighting Design: Frank DenDanto III 
Sound Design: David Gerard 
P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue (@9th Street) (212) 477-5288 
opened August 11 closes August 28 
Time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one intermission 
Seen August 7, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman August 12, 1999

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