The life of Irish-born multihyphenate Oscar Wilde, as consequential as it was brief, is the subject of Micheál Mac Liammóir’s “The Importance of Being Oscar,” now earning a judicious, fast-paced and inventive production at Thinking Cap Theatre. Staging the play in the company’s capacious new home in Dania Beach, director Nicole Stodard honors Mac Liammóir’s intention as a primer on his subject—a sort of Wilde 101, interspersing biographical details with excerpts from Wilde’s plays, poems, letters and lone novel—while updating the now 50-year-old work with modern flourishes and multimedia dazzle.
Trimming the playwright’s text down to a lean 110-minute experience (including an intermission that’s perhaps not necessary), Stodard focuses primarily on the final 15 years of Wilde’s life, which inspired his most enduring works, his ascension to the top dandy of western Europe, and his ignominious fall from literary grace, ultimately leading to his two-year incarceration for sodomy and his early death.
As Wilde, Ronnie Larsen channels his subject’s blithe wit and imperious personality in settings that allow him to consume much of the room’s oxygen—to permit him to be a ham, you might say. (“I have nothing to declare but my genius!” Wilde says, upon his arrival to Customs in the United States, just one bon mot from his bottomless repository.)
It feels like much fun and games for Larsen and his character, until the wheels of justice introduce him to an alien emotion: sorrow. Arriving at the beginning of Act II, Wilde reads a hefty portion of his monumental letter from prison, “De Profundis,” and it’s among the richest highlights of Larsen’s career. He performs the scene, indeed, like a writer: as if revising and discovering his diction in the moment, appearing incredulous at the situation in which he finds himself, and by the end of the letter settling on a resigned, if soul-crushing, acceptance of his position. Absent Wildeian affectation, Larsen’s abundantly insightful monologue allows us to see through the surface of Wilde and into the naked pain underneath it.
Mac Liammóir scripted his play as a show for a single actor, but Stodard wisely expands the cast for added dynamics and flavors. Bree-Anna Obst and Travon Pierre serve as ancillary narrators and vital scene partners in the re-enactments from Wilde’s works. Acting as an almost genderless chameleon, Obst’s command of commedia dell’arte and silent-cinema tropes is on bountiful display. Pierre’s finest contribution is his embodiment of the title character in The Picture of Dorian Gray, though his work feels a bit more labored than his colleagues’, with a few minor if notable line flubs at Wednesday night’s performance.
Stodard conceived the production as a variety show of sorts, filling the play with stylistic surprises. When Larsen performs his untitled love letter to “L.L.,” he does so as an oppressive serenade, with a wireless mic in hand, bearing down on his subject (Obst) as she endeavors to squirm away. Wilde’s poem “Harlot’s House” is presented with disco lights whirling around the theater. The cast sings Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” as a kind of barbershop trio, with Obst providing live banjo accompaniment.
Then there’s the impressive projection screen consuming the back wall of the theater space, in which sunflowers bloom, frightful wallpaper clashes, and the picture of Dorian Gray ages in front of us, eventually dripping blood. I’m delighted to see this technology, so unique when it debuted in Miami with the city’s numerous immersive Van Gogh exhibitions, finding similar function in regional theatre.
Stodard’s costume design is its customary cornucopia of delights, from the black top hats and elegant suits and furs of aristocratic fin de siècle Europe to the wittily chosen attire for the plays-within-the-play. Larsen sports a towering white wig and blue cape, to great comic effect, as Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Ernest;” Obst dons a spattered apron and a bedazzled beret as the painter of Dorian Gray. In a decision as expedient for the storytelling as it is transparent for the audience, all costume changes are completed onstage, as supplied in corner bureaus or trunks, but with Matt Griffin’s lighting design deftly directing us away from these actions, we hardly notice the swift transformations.
The first-rate sound design, credited to Obst and Stodard, also contributes to the show’s success, with musical selections from the Clash to the Pet Shop Boys to Chopin and Strauss ushering us into the different developments of Wilde’s life, and other sound cues placing us everywhere from a Colorado mine shaft to a posh London dinner party.
Their finest contribution as audio engineers, though, is that pivotal prison monologue, preceded by the sound of clinking chains and cavernous, echoing hallways. The heavy whoosh of prison doors punctuates every few sentences, as if dividing Wilde’s prose into poetic stanzas, each beat lingering with the weight of his sordid situation.
Mac Liammóir spares us the details of Wilde’s trial; the word “sodomy” never turns up in this production, let alone a cleared-eyed assessment that some aspects of Wilde’s sexual life may not have been defensible even by today’s standards. The pathos of this scene is nonetheless shattering, its great writer presented as a victim of backward times. Wilde died not long after, of a disease as banal as meningitis. But as this illuminating production suggests, it was really society that killed him.
“The Importance of Being Oscar” runs through Oct. 30 at Thinking Cap Theatre at MAD Arts, 485 S. Federal Highway, Dania Beach. Tickets cost $40. Call 954/610-7263 or visit thinkingcaptheatre.org.
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