The thing we seem to forget about legendary creative radicals like Oscar Wilde is that they were, in a word, radicals. Oscar Wilde may have been a student of literary history, but his work was prescient. To Wilde, society was a solved puzzle box of obvious illusions masking desires that were even more obvious. He may have been inspired by the great authors who came before him, but he wasn’t the kind of artist who often looked back.
PICT’s In the Company of Oscar Wilde takes, in a very literal sense, exactly the opposite approach to storytelling. At the play’s open, two high society women (Marsha Mayhak and Karen Baum) approach the stage and commiserate about the party they’re attending and the men within it. Two of these men (Martin Giles and James Fitzgerald) enter mid-conversation and strike up a discussion about Oscar Wilde with the women, who have primarily only heard rumors about him.
This, I feel, is an unfortunate framing device for a story. I do not want the entirety of a narrative to be expressed by a pair of men interrupting women at a party to explain things to them; I also don’t want the women to express gratitude in return, because even a fantasy demands some context in reality when put onstage. I could very well be wrong, but if I remember correctly, there is at least one “well, actually…” moment early on that drives the point home.
I digress. All four participants begin speaking about Wilde’s life and written works at length – or, to be more precise, they begin to quote him directly ad nauseum. We learn Wilde’s real-life biography via these people, and nothing more, because they do not exist to be known. They are flesh-vessels of Wilde’s timeline, vague shadows of nineteenth century caricature energetically performing dozens of the man’s one liners before disappearing off into the ether.
They’re effective at being that, to be fair, as I learned a thing or two about Wilde I didn’t know before I entered the theater. I’m a fan of Wilde but I’m no expert, and some of In the Company’s greatest insights come from a dramatic reading of his diary, which was written while he was imprisoned for (more or less) his love affair with another man. When I call this moment a dramatic reading, I mean it literally: Alan Stanford, who both directs the show and acts as its contextual narrator, offers up insights and quotes from Wilde’s life his four protagonists cannot, in this case by simply reading Wilde’s diary to us. Stanford’s voice is effective, one I’d gladly sit with it in the context of an audiobook, but his narrative technique here reveals a lot about the show in general, too.
In the Company is an elaborate act of hero worship. It does not exist to explicate Wilde’s illustrious career – it just wants you to know the rough outline of it. There is a somewhat odd scene in which the well-loved Lady Bracknell (Ingrid Sonnichsen), a human brick wall of indecipherable high society judgement written for The Importance of Being Earnest, relieves the play of its reality by generating a corporeal form and reciting the dialogue from her most beloved scene in its entirety. This sort of ‘fictional guest star’ role is exclusive to Bracknell, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. It’s no surprise that Stanford would refrain from fan fiction-ing new lines for the character, but she is the only of Oscar’s creations we get to see for ourselves. While I suppose it’s a particular kind of delightful to get a Bracknell-for-Bracknell’s-sake scene, as an isolated moment it’s jarring, and begs an obvious question: why don’t more of Wilde’s characters make an appearance? I don’t necessarily need to see Dorian Gray walk onstage and be a sociopath to everyone for a few minutes, but there are a lot of Wilde characters worth reading who are rarely read or studied. If there was ever a place to explore Wilde’s lesser-known work, this would seem to be it.
In the Company of Oscar Wilde is fine for newcomers or diehards with an unquenchable thirst for any and all things Wilde, but as it stands the show doesn’t engage in conversation with the author it is inspired by so much as embody the echo of his voice. It’s rather like a cover band of a group that broke up decades ago; your relationship with it will almost certainly be dictated by your pre-established relationship with its progenitor. In either case, you will at least have a few extra quips in your back pocket the next time a man at a party begins explaining things about your favorite author to you.
In the Company of Oscar Wilde has unfortunately already closed but you can check out what PICT is up to here.