May 17, 2014
I met Neal Utterback ten years ago, when I saw his play second. at Under St. Marks. I admired that piece so much that I published it in NYTE's anthology Plays and Playwrights 2005. Neal has been away from the NYC theater scene for a while -- he's currently Assistant Professor of Theater at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where he also runs The Gravity Partners, a professional theatre ensemble that uses the school as its "incubator."
So I was excited to see that Neal is back in town with a new (at least to us) piece: The Picture (of Dorian Gray). (I say new to us because The Picture was featured in the 2009 Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.) The show, presented by The Gravity Partners, is at Planet Connections through May 23rd. I saw the opening performance and I recommend it!
The title suggests that this is a re-telling of Oscar Wilde's famous novel; the parenthesis within the title suggest that it's not a straightforward rendering. Both of these surmises are true.
The Picture takes a sort of story-theater-ish approach to genuinely illuminate the important themes of Wilde's work. There are five actors--Phil Oberholzer, Alyssa Newberg, Jamison Monella, Andrew Kilpatrick, and Jessica Denison--who together narrate and occasionally enact brief scenes from the story. All five are clad in white shirts and blue jeans; they differentiate the characters they play through voice, posture and the use of a single set of props: different eyeglasses are used for each person in the story. The characters are played by many different actors during the course of the play, and it is greatly to the actors' and Utterback's credit that we are never confused as to who is who, or where we are, or what's going on. Spare and minimal, this is also as clear a telling of the haunting and cautionary story of Wilde's vain young man as I've seen.
The text seems to come verbatim from the novel, deftly and economically abridged by Utterback. At the end of many of the scenes (or "chapters") is a coda that is taken from a later Wilde work, De Profundis, the letter he wrote to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas from jail. Additional interpolation seems to have been devised by the company members: commentary on the story rooted, often, in contemporary culture (like the singing at a couple of key moments of lines from The Police's "Every Breath You Take.") The result is a collage that enhances and clarifies, but never distracts from or distorts--the themes of Dorian Gray. The moment when Dorian realizes the depth of his crimes is particularly arresting: I've never felt its punch so keenly before.
I noticed, too, that the heralded epigrams spouted throughout (mostly by the character of Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian's mentor) felt hollow and superficial in the mouths of these young actors; I appreciated that very much.
Utterback and his collaborators--who also include composer Gabriel Gould and stage manager Heidi Kleber--have done a remarkable job with this Picture. Like the very best theatrical adaptations, this offers not so much a re-imagination as a fresh interpretation, one that authentically facilitates a fresh examination of a classic work of art that's compelling and resonant.