by Anthony Pennino · August 16, 2014
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to judge a statewide high school drama competition in New Jersey. One of the performances I had to critique was that of a kid -- about 15 -- who did the “O but for a muse of fire” monologue from Henry V. As he entered, I thought, “This is never going to work.” But then something quite wonderful happened. He performed the piece as a 15-year-old and infused it with all the wonder a 15-year-old would have for “famine, sword, and fire”. By being true to himself, he owned the monologue and gave his audience a new entry point into the work. That same spirit is very much present in The Picture (of Dorian Gray) currently playing at this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
Produced by The Gravity Partners (the theatrical arm of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania), an ensemble of five undergraduate actors perform adapter and director Neal Utterback’s reimaging of Oscar Wilde’s novel (with some heavy doses form the author’s De Profundis). As a concept, the original Dorian Gray holds a certain amount of fascination, but, as narrative, it alas comes across as rather banal. It is therefore extremely logical to want to bring this story with its focus on youth and superficial beauty to the stage and told through the lens of actors in their late teens/early 20’s in early 21st-century America. Again, by being true to themselves, they owned the material. Those who need crumpets and waistcoats with their Wilde should look elsewhere.
Utterback has deconstructed the original text and fashioned a meta-theatrical event that uses the tropes of the stage to comment on the nature of identity itself. Utilizing certain methods of the Royal Court Theatre during Max Stafford-Clark’s tenure, the director has divided the roles so that all of the actors at one time or another play Dorian, Lord Henry, Basil etc. (though there is one performer who chiefly inhabits a given role). The first ten minutes or so do require the audience to pay a great deal of attention in order to comprehend fully how the world of the play works, but that attention is rewarded, particularly for the plays elegiac conclusion. Additionally, the physicality of the performance, the forging of a seamless ensemble, and the deployment of certain Brechtian devices has ensured both an emotionally powerful and intellectually satisfying evening of theatre. Utterback effectively has brought Wilde into the contemporary world to critique the shallowness of our age.
It is always thrilling to witness brilliant performances on stage, doubly so when they are given by the next generation of professional actors. Alyssa Newberg (the primary Sybil Vane and an Alan Campbell) proves to be a vivacious and comic force on stage. Andrew Kilpatrick (the primary Basil and also an Alan) brings nuanced pathos and humanity to his performance. Phil Oberholzer serves as the rather wily and subversive narrator who rather wonderfully turns the tables on Dorian. Jessica Denison commands as the principle Lord Henry; her last scene with Dorian is well played in an understated way, and I found myself wishing that there had been more of her in the role. Jamison Monella as the primary Dorian Gray fully inhabits the role with a cavalier narcissism and insolent apathy (that is reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo from his Breathless days) while finding at the end a child-like confusion and despair.
There were some minor issues on the technical side. The use of sunglasses to demark characters often became confusing. The cast would have been helped by a greater sound life for the production. But these are quibbles. The Picture (of Dorian Gray) is a FringeNYC must-see.