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|A CurtainUp Review
By Laura Hitchcock
Based on Oscar Wilde's favorite short story "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.", which, in turn, is based on an old theory about the identity of the muse who inspired Shakespeare's sonnets. Whether Dark Lady or Young Man, playwright Blair Fell's clever lusty portrait of artistic obsession is shadowed by the effect the story had on its author. It provided the first ammunition to those forces which eventually forced Oscar Wilde into prison and subsequently out of England.
The play has been called literate. How could it be otherwise with both Shakespeare and Wilde to be drawn on? Fell inserts his own sense of structure and characterization. Director Derek Charles Livingston provides the pace. There's no nudity but a lot of writhing.
The story implies Shakespeare's muse was a young actor, Willie Hughes (a fictional character), who played the female roles in Shakespeare's plays. While Wilde and his friend Erskine try to sort out this theory initiated by Cyril Graham, their young Oxford classmate, who commits suicide when Erskine refuses to believe him, the Elizabethan characters depict the story Wilde weaves out of this theory.
Shakespeare, played with understated charisma by Rey Howard, initially tries to keep his distance from Willie, maintaining that a physical relationship might harm his art. It's made clear from the beginning when Willie, a boy chorister, is summoned to the loft by a naked choirmaster that he's no virgin.
The minx in the mix is Rose, deliciously played by Josie DiVincenzo, who is smitten with Shakespeare but seduces Will to attract WS's attention. This works but it doesn't work, as Fell slyly teases out the politics of passion.
Matty Ferraro plays the aristocratic Cyril Graham with delicate grace. As Willie Hughes, he attempts the total opposite, offsetting the boy's beauty by using a loutish country accent that's perilously close to caricature. He drops it with delightful impersonations of all Shakespeare's female characters, down to the glee with which he soaks up applause. It's always hard to play Oscar Wilde and when Hutchins Foster makes his entrance, you think you may be treated to an over-the-top fop cliché. But as the play goes on and Foster/Wilde is caught up in creating his story, all the mannerisms fall away and you have a feeling this was planned from the very beginning. This revelation of Oscar Wilde is a risk that Foster and Livingston pull off.
Solid versatile support comes from Michael Oosterom as the conflicted Victorian Erskine and the flamboyant Elizabethan actor/manager Burbage, and Noah Wagner as the painter Merton and a dynamic Christopher Marlowe who died too soon, both in life and in this play. The charming set, mostly Victorian but very literate, is designed by Keith Ellis Mitchell.
To read a review of another production of this play go here.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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