Theatre Rhino Production of 'Dorian Gray' Invigorates

Photo: FOREVER YOUNG. As Lord Harry (John Fisher) and James Vane (Adam Simpson) look on, Dorian Gray (Aaron Martinsen) interacts with Sybil Vane (Maryssa Wanlass); the titular character's dilemma forms the basis of Theatre Rhinoceros' interpretation of Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.'
David Wilson/Courtesy
FOREVER YOUNG. As Lord Harry (John Fisher) and James Vane (Adam Simpson) look on, Dorian Gray (Aaron Martinsen) interacts with Sybil Vane (Maryssa Wanlass); the titular character's dilemma forms the basis of Theatre Rhinoceros' interpretation of Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.'

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Oscar Wilde's short but intense novel about the portrait that aged and the man that didn't has been the subject of adaptation after adaptation in the 120 years since it was published. It's not hard to understand why: The story is well-known, the plot lends itself to dramatic visuals, and Wilde's dialogue, dripping with his characteristic wit, reads as if it were born to be spoken aloud. It is likewise not hard to read homosexual themes into "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and it seems to make sense that Theatre Rhinoceros, SF's queer theatre company, would stage its own adaptation, written, directed and acted in by John Fisher.

The play, like the novel, opens in the London studio of painter Basil Hallward (Jef Valentine), who has become recently infatuated with the beauty of a young man named Dorian Gray (Aaron Martinsen) - an infatuation that in the terms of this adaptation seems much more about lust than about aesthetics. Basil subsequently pours his soul into the painting, which he considers the masterpiece of his career. While sitting for the portrait, Dorian becomes influenced by the hedonistic conversation of Basil's eloquent friend, Lord Harry Wotton (John Fisher), who argues that beauty and youth are the only things worth having. Dorian admires the portrait and makes the thoughtless wish that the painting would become old and ugly instead of him. It turns out the devil (or whatever else one can unwittingly sell their soul to) listens and what follows is a twisted descent into inhuman cruelty in pursuit of pleasure.

Though the actors are costumed in quite lavish period dress, the stage itself is almost completely bare. As a result, most of the "set" and visuals are left up to inspired and often impressive pantomime, the most remarkable being the somewhat brilliant lack of an actual portrait (for most of the play).

The cast works well as an ensemble, with each acrobatically taking on several roles, though no singular performance is particularly moving. Staying true to the novel, Martinsen's Dorian spouts mechanical cruelties and corrupts young boys, and Fisher's Lord Harry is much like a dirty-minded middle-aged man who likes to hear himself talk.

But it is the three-hour running time that makes the production something of a marathon effort - for both the actors and the audience. While it is clear that Fisher was extremely careful in adapting Wilde's voice (not one of his remarks on theater goes to waste) and purpose, as well as emphasizing homoerotic undertones, there is also something to be said for knowing when to draw the line. If you're going to stage a show this long, it had better be absolutely enthralling. And although purists might beg to differ, while watching "Dorian Gray" one couldn't help but feel that had Wilde himself written the story as a play, he would have kept a handle on the subplots and the length. Maybe that's why he chose the novel as his form - it's as if the scope of Wilde's "Dorian" ultimately fits more readily between two covers than on a stage.

Keeping with the horrific flavor of the novel, this show is intense. Keep in mind that there are depictions of drug use, violence, as well as nudity; it's not necessarily a play to take the whole family to. The play ends as it begins, with a few words from Lord Harry. And maybe, at least in this sense, the adaptation is successful. The cyclical nature of it all leaves the audience hearing echoes of Wilde's ultimatum from the preface of the novel and the play - that "all art is quite useless" - and wondering how much he really wanted us to believe him.


Arielle Little is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]



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