An intimate, little group of 16 or so assembled in a space not far from the stage at the Underground Collaborative for a Voices Found Repertory presentation. There was a cozy kind of welcoming informality about the place as people settled-in for a staged reading of Jake Thompson’s Beautiful Things Or the Rise and Fall of Dorian Gray and the Writer From Mars.
Actors and others involved in local theatre sat in a circle of chairs. There were pillows on the carpeted floor of a room just precisely big enough to hold all in attendance. The charmingly engaging Jake Thompson introduced the reading of his script from paper packets and mobile devices. He spoke of the long process of getting the script into its current form: an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and biographical bits of Wilde’s life fused together under the influence of David Bowie’s 1972 Ziggy Stardust album.
The title of the script almost feels suggestive of some sort of weird Bowie-esque rock opera fusion between author and adaptation of his novel. This is not the case. Every scene is named after a different David Bowie song. Other than that, Bowie is nowhere to be found aside from a vague thematic connection Bowie’s relationship with his Ziggy Stardust character and Wilde’s relationship with the inhabitants of Dorian Gray.
Thompson’s work is an alternating fusion between biography and adaptation of Wilde’s novel. On the surface, this feels a bit redundant as Wilde’s work is essentially a dialectic exploring different elements within him. Wilde has even stated that the three central characters in the novel are essentially aspects of his own personality, so it’s already about him. Throwing biographical moments with Wilde into the adaptation might feel a bit unnecessary. The work speaks for itself. It’s difficult enough to distill any decent novel down to the script’s 90 minutes as it is. Throwing biography in there would seem absurd. In attempting to be both fiction and biography at the same time, any production of Thompson’s work runs the risk of failing at both. That being said, there was something very haunting about Wilde contrasted with his three central characters that became apparent in the course of the reading. Clearly Thompson’s on to something with his script.
Prior to the beginning of the reading, actors were paired with characters. Kyle Conner (last seen onstage in an entirely different reading of an entirely different original locally-written script in an entirely different basement) was chosen for Wilde. Conner’s deft emotional instincts served that character of Wilde quite well, allowing for emotion not often exhibited in traditional depictions of the writer.
The three central men in Dorian Gray were read by women. Voices Found’s Alexis Furseth read the part of Dorian Gray in Thompson’s adaptation of selected highlights of the novel. The sensitive innocence at the opening of the story pummeled its way through intermittent scenes to the harshness of the character at the end of the story. There isn’t a whole lot of room for delicate character development in selected scenes pulled from an 80,000 word text over the course of 90 minutes, but existing as he does in shadowy echoes of Wilde and two other characters, the adaptation works.
Sarah Zapiain responded most noticeably to Thompson’s description of corrupting influence Lord Henry as the Kevin Kline character from A Fish Called Wanda. She was given the role to read. An actress of intricate gravities, Zapiain was a perfect fit. She’s magnetic. Some of Wilde’s wittiest lines were casually amplified by the woman reading Henry. Who wouldn’t want to be corrupted by Sarah Zapiain?
Maya Danks rounded out the central quartet reading the role of painter Basil Hallward, who serves as the conscience of the piece. Danks earnest emotional warmth in a role helped to shine a light on the strengths of pairing Oscar Wilde’s biographical moments with the fiction.
The four central characters in Thompson’s adaptation had an undeniable appeal in the reading. During the reading, part of this appeal came from a really talented quartet of actors. In the script, part of this appeal also comes from the inherent appeal of seeing echoes of the same personality reflected between four different characters in two different worlds onstage.
Thompson’s work could really harness this appeal by focusing the energy of the script more centrally on those central four characters. If he can do so in a way that harnesses the moody, mercurial rock and roll of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, all the better. (Otherwise...y’know...maybe drop the Bowie connection altogether as it’s not a very strong connection as it is.) Conner’s passionate reading of Wilde’s words taken from courtroom transcripts show that he can work in more of an emotionally aggressive context. Why not go all the way with it? It would be interesting to see the wit of Wilde delivered with a brasher, higher-energy delivery than is allowed in traditional performances of Wilde’s work. Tightening-up the script and amping-up the tempo could turn this 90-minute script into a remarkably taut 60 minutes. This could theoretically allow for more coverage of both fiction and biography in a future draft of Thompson decides to explore it. Of course, judging from audience reaction to the reading, this might not be necessary. Everyone in attendance enjoyed it.
As this was more of a workshop reading of Thompson’s adaptation for local theatre people, there was some rather in-depth conversation regarding the script afterwards. The most interesting element of this post-reading conversation was finding out how much appeal the script held for those in the audience who weren’t as familiar with Wilde. A dive as deep as his into Oscar Wilde from fiction and biographical angles would be excessively dull if not handled well. Clearly the script can hold the interest of theatergoers not already a fan of Wilde’s. That Thompson’s work was able to hold them is quite an accomplishment. (A couple of people in attendance expressed an interest in reading the novel for the first time.) Thompson’s really got something here. It’ll be interesting to see how Thompson’s work develops in the future.
Beautiful Things Or the Rise and Fall of Dorian Gray and the Writer From Mars. rests for now. Next up for Voices Found Repertory is an appearance at Milwaukee Fringe Fest on August 24th. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook events page.