Chicago Theatre Review
A Picture Worth a Thousand Words
Dorian – House Theatre
When it first hit bookstores in 1890, British critics were shocked by the decadence and hedonism described in playwright Oscar Wilde’s only novel. It was widely condemned as immoral and became the book decent Londoners would never want to be caught reading. Pressured to sanitize its scandalous content, Wilde removed all references to homosexuality for the second printing the following year. Wilde also introduced a new character who, in true Victorian style, attempts to kill Dorian in order to avenge his sister’s suicide. Wilde also added a preface that defined art and defended the role of the artist.
Seemingly influenced by Oscar Wilde’s original text, Ben Lobpries collaborated with director/choreographer Tommy Rapley in creating this contemporary, movement-and-music based stage version of the controversial novel. Set to the driving, pulsating beat of Kevin O’Donnell’s dance music, Rapley stages and choreographs his versatile cast all over the Chopin Theatre space on Collette Pollard’s adaptable white block set. A functional bar, servicing both the characters and the audience, dominates one end of playing space. Illuminated by Rebecca Barrett and Lee Keenan’s rotating laser and concert lighting and costumed in Mieka van der Ploeg’s stylish, bright, jewel-toned state-of-the-art fashions, the production creates the look and mood of a combination techno dance club and high-fashion art gallery. Although some chairs are available, for this production the majority of the audience isn’t seated; instead they’re encouraged to stand and roam about the space wherever they wish “promenade style.” In addition to performing as art patrons and club dancers, the ensemble gently guides the voyeuristic audience safely out of the way of the actors and moving set pieces.
In this updated version of Wilde’s novel Dorian, shortly after arriving in the city, is thrust into the company of Basil, a talented up-and-coming artist. The painter takes a liking to the handsome, young man and convinces Dorian to pose for him. Upon completion of the portrait and as a token of his idolization, Basil presents it to his muse. Dorian secretly makes a wish that he might always remain as handsome and youthful as the idealistic painting. Soon Harry, another new friend and a critic, introduces Dorian to the art world, saturated with drugs, booze and sex. Eventually he meets, becomes involved with and ultimately discards Harry and his society friends, including Harry’s cousin Gladys, their doctor friend Alan and a sassy, sexy erotic dancer named Sybil. As the years pass and his friends grow older, Dorian curiously remains handsome and youthful-looking. His increasingly hedonistic lifestyle, however, is absorbed by the portrait; and as Dorian grows progressively amoral and depraved the painting reflects the monster that he’s turned into, and the consequences aren’t pretty.
Cole Simon is an attractive and athletic Dorian, and his journey from shy newcomer to callous libertine is gradual but frightening. Patrick Andrews, whose professional credits range from TimeLine to the Goodman, is strong and captivating as Basil. The two actors, who share a blossoming but doomed relationship, complement each another, both physically and vocally. As Harry, Manny Buckley turns in a performance that masters the askance look and the sarcastic quip (“I have no imagination; that’s why I’m a critic”). Kelley Abell stands out among this cast as Sybil, the dancer and only woman to capture Dorian’s heart, but who’s ultimately driven to despair. Talented and versatile Alex Weisman creates Alan, a young medical student secretly and painfully in love with Dorian, and who suffers for his infatuation. And Lauren Pizzi is perfection as Gladys, the haughty social butterfly who knows everyone.
Tommy Rapley’s stellar production is a living entity. It’s an exciting, continually moving mass of light, sound and writhing flesh. Rapley has not only created a beautiful, sensual theatrical thriller, especially adapted for today’s audiences, but he’s directed and choreographed it with great skill, sensitivity and erotic athleticism. As Jeff Klapperich’s technically-created portrait continues to erode with Dorian’s sins, the audience grows ever aware of the horror evolving from a young man’s innocent wish. It’s hard to believe that Wilde’s Victorian novel, so similar to Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was created over a hundred years ago. It’s impact, as seen in this production, is every bit as powerful today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 4-May 18 by The House Theatre of Chicago, performing at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-769-3832 or by going to www.housetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.