Chicago Theatre Review
A Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name
The Judas Kiss – Dead Writers Theatre
David Hare’s 1998 drama is about the relationship, scandal and subsequent betrayal of gay, Irish author/playwright Oscar Wilde and his young lover, Alfred, Lord Douglas. Affectionately called Bosie, Lord Douglas was aristocracy, the son of Sir John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry. Bosie was known for being spoiled, manipulative and totally self-centered. In order to get back at his controlling father, Douglas coerced Wilde into suing the Marquess for slander when he labeled the writer a sodomite. The loss of that lawsuit led to Wilde being publicly charged for gross indecency and, while he might’ve fled the country to avoid imprisonment, was convinced by Lord Douglas to stay in England to defend his honor. Wilde ended up serving two unspeakably harsh and brutal years in Pentonville and Wandsworth Prisons in London, ultimately being transferred to Reading Gaol outside the city. After being released Wilde attempted to reunite with his young lover, but exiled from England, he ended up sickly and broke, living out his final years in a rundown hotel room in Naples.
David Hare’s play originally opened in London’s West End, with Liam Neeson starring as Oscar Wilde. It later transferred to Broadway, with the same cast, and received mixed reviews. A 2012 London revival, starring Rupert Everett as Wilde, was received more positively and ultimately toured the United Kingdom. Dead Writers Theatre Collective, a Chicago company dedicated to presenting works by important playwrights of the past, with detailed attention to authenticity, follows up their excellent production of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” with this biographical drama about the playwright. Sadly, this fundraising production is playing only three performances, but it’s a production well worth seeing.
Jim Schneider has again done his homework in directing this moving, and often humorous play. Not only do audiences learn a great deal about the last years of Mr. Wilde’s life, but they come to understand the two men with whom the playwright was passionately involved over the course of his life. As he has with past productions, Mr. Schneider directs this historical work with a sense of immediacy, creating the here-and-now, rather than making the play into a museum piece. Hare’s characters, as they appear in print, are already vivacious and filled with passion and longing. But Schneider goes even further, guiding his actors through a process by which they make interesting choices that allow each of them to radiate with honesty. The director wisely uses every inch of the tiny cabaret space to his advantage, bringing this story directly into the audience’s lap.
Ben Muller is extraordinary as Oscar Wilde. He completely captures every vocal gesture and every subtle nuance of the man. He has the look and mannerisms perfected, and his execution of the playwright’s witty dialogue, maxims and phraseology is spot-on. The drama rests squarely upon this excellent actor’s shoulders and he takes the ball and runs with it. Mr. Muller absolutely inhabits Oscar Wilde at every turn, not only when he’s witty and flirtatious, but even when the man is sick and wracked with pain.
Jack Dryden, whose boyish good looks and swagger make him a great choice for the role of Bosie, is wildly impetuous and haughty. Alternating between fits of braying laughter and childish tantrums, Dryden has a good handle on this role. Sometimes, however, his explosions of anger feel a bit overdone, especially for the size of this venue, but the actor has done his job, and creates a snobbish, very unlikable antagonist in Alfred, Lord Douglas. As Robbie Ross, the young man who truly loved Oscar Wilde, Neal Javenkoski is very good. Torn between his sense of duty, his jealousy over Wilde’s obsession with young, pretty Lord Douglas and his own love for the Irish playwright, Mr. Javenkoski brings a quiet intensity to his role that’s very refreshing. While Bosie flaunts his sexual escapades in Wilde’s face, romping naked through the sheets with an Italian fisherman named Galileo (played by the always wonderful actor, Edward Fraim), Robbie Ross’ love for Oscar is unrequited and painfully restrained. Other fine performances are turned in by Andrea Young and Charles Askenaizer as two dedicated hotel servants, Phoebe and Arthur, and by Michael Graham as kindly hotel manager, Mr. Moffatt.
Oscar Wilde left the world a number of wonderful works, including his gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his children’s book The Happy Prince and, among several theatrical comedies of manner, his magnum opus, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He’s also remembered, however, for his scandalous love life. Despite being married and having two children, Wilde indulged in what one barrister described as “the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde’s relationships with young men, in particular the handsome aristocrat, Alfred, Lord Douglas, resulted in three trials for gross indecency and inhumane imprisonment. This resulted in the playwright’s ruination. David Hare’s play, which is being presented in an excellent limited run, recounts the last two years of Oscar Wilde’s life and is a stunning, honest portrait of the man and the artist.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 6, 7 and 8 by Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets may be purchased through the website, www.deadwriters.net, or by calling 773-305-8221.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.