Michael Drury as Oscar WIlde.
Written & directed by Jack Wallen
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Just after he finished The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned once his libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury provided evidence enough to not only dismiss that action but to trigger charges of indecency against Wilde. Such private intimate actions would remain illegal under British law until 1967 and two years in a series of prisons would effectively end Wilde’s writing career and cause the decline in his health that would lead to his death in 1890.
While in prison, Wilde wrote De Profundis as a lengthy missive to Lord Alfred Douglas, the individual who was the subject of all of the court actions. Jack Wallen has adapted the rambling but detailed reminiscence into a monologue delivered by Wilde from inside his prison cell. The Irish-born poet waxes and wanes on his life with references to many of his works, but the most powerful moments are observations on his trial and incarceration.
This is an obvious choice for Pandora, for Wilde is one of the greatest playwrights and was jailed for “the love that dare not speak its name”. It also finishes a season of pandemic necessary one-person shows with a bravura turn by Pandora Producing Artistic Director Michael Drury.
Yet the natural theatrical conceit also cannot help but feel like a gloss on meaningful work. Wilde is given to addressing much of his speech to his jailer (“you are a hard nut to crack, Constable”) so that many times the piece naturally takes on the character of a conversation. As Drury speaks as Wilde in a florid voice that is as mannered as we might expect from an Irishman who cultivated an “English” dialect and was a true bon vivant in public, it seduces us into a superficial engagement with the character. Dressed in a surprisingly fashionable convict’s uniform, and sporting Wilde’s long hair (an unfortunate and distracting wig) this is a perhaps bit too romantic a depiction of a great soul at their lowest point.
But by the time we reach act III the journey through Wilde’s heart and mind has progressed to something of the depths the title promises. He painfully recounts how the words of his beloved “Bosie”, his pet name for Douglas, are used in court against him and at that point in the performance it is not difficult to imagine the pain this caused an individual whose command of the English language arguably had no peer. This is the moment when the earlier passages pay off dramatic dividends, having laid the foundation of the audience’s understanding.
The design work is beautiful, with moonlight streaming through the barred windows and illuminating the space with analogous hues of blue and purple. There is a use of projected phrases that appear immediately following their delivery. It is a useful device for representing one of the most quoted of writers, but it feels overused. Instead of occasional point of punctuation, it eventually becomes distracting and superfluous.
Ultimately I Profundis moves beyond autobiography to a passionate and even desperate declaration of artistic identity, as Wilde deconstructs the charge of behavior “other than ordinary” with the challenge that the very nature of the artist’s role is to be extraordinary. Viewing this from the perspective of 2021, it somehow is both incredible and not unfamiliar to understand how such as Oscar Wilde could be persecuted for love.
Available On Demand May 14 -23, 2021. Click HERE for tickets.
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Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music, and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.