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Shades of ‘Gray’ at the Blackbird Theatre

By |2018-01-16T05:37:21-05:00April 23rd, 2009|Entertainment|

If given a choice, I would much rather sit in a dark theater and experience something new – such as an original work or a fresh interpretation of an old chestnut – than find myself bored with yet another production of “Cats” or any other show I’ve seen multiple times. And if I had my druthers, I’d never review a preview performance, since previews are when actors, directors and technicians finish polishing their show in front of a live audience before it officially debuts on opening night. But a heavy review schedule and limited newsprint space converged to dictate otherwise this past weekend, and so it was with much intrigue that I drove to Ann Arbor to attend a preview performance of the Blackbird Theatre’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” – primarily because of the troupe’s unique “hook” to the 19th-century classic novel. And while I’m still not sure what the theater’s “powers-that-be” set out to accomplish by staging their original adaptation with an all-female cast, I suspect author Oscar Wilde would surely be pleased with their gender-bending endeavor.
The tale of an extraordinarily handsome man who comes under the influence of two older men, Wilde’s first-and-only novel, first published in 1890, shocked Victorian sensibilities. Young Dorian (Alysia Kolascz) sits for a portrait and captures the affections of both the painter, Basil Hallward (Eva Rosenwald), and his old college friend, Lord Henry Wotton (Mori Richner). Basil is inspired by – and infatuated with – his subject’s charm and beauty, whereas the worldly nobleman sees Dorian as young and naive, and so he decides to take the lad under his wings. “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it,” Wotton tells his young protege. So when the completed painting is revealed as Basil’s best work ever, Dorian realizes that as he grows old, the painting will reflect his youth forever. He wishes for the opposite to be true, and exclaims, “I would give my soul for that.”
And thus begins a tale of debauchery and hedonism that some call “one of the last works of classic Gothic horror fiction with a strong Faustian theme.”
Yet that’s not quite what Barton Bund and Wa-Louisa Hubbard capture in their adaptation of Wilde’s novel. Instead, they focus on the plot’s more romantic elements – and in that regard, they succeed quite well.
That’s especially true in how Hubbard – who doubles as the play’s director – stages the physical and emotional interactions among the plot’s three main characters. The glances, the electrified pauses and the brief, intimate touches all convey far more than mere words ever could.

Yet with women in all of the men’s roles, there are mixed messages being sent here – that is, a disconnect between the audio and the visual in which the dialogue is very masculine in nature, but the gestures and movements that deliver it are very feminine.
That’s compounded by the inconsistent and mostly unconvincing performances given by the women playing men at this stage in the show’s development. Playing a man convincingly doesn’t happen simply by wearing a man’s clothes; masculine body language and line delivery must also be adopted by the female actor – similar to the way Shakespeare and his troupe worked, with male actors playing all the female roles. In this particular case, the text and source material are quite clear that Dorian, Basil and Henry are all masculine men of their time period. (The story’s homoerotic elements reflect Wilde’s appreciation for the ancient Greek’s attitude towards male love.) Yet only Richner completely envelopes herself with the masculine mannerisms and attitudes called for by her character, an illusion she maintains throughout the production.
As such, since the men portrayed by the other actors are not fully masculine (but often are quite feminized or appear to be females), much of the more intimate moments in the show are rendered powerless because of the gender identity confusion.
Also problematic is the show’s pacing. Little dramatic tension is felt throughout the play, nor does Hubbard build to the script’s tragic ending – so much so, that the preview audience seemed to have no clue the play was over until it sat in the dark far longer than any previous set change.
So as an exercise into how women would interpret a male-oriented script and its very masculine characters, the Blackbird’s experiment doesn’t work – at least not at this point in its gestation. But it DOES beg to go a step farther – and that is to re-envision the story with everyone’s gender reversed. Watching the Blackbird’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” made me wonder how the three main characters would react to one another and the tragedy that unfolds if they were women – played by women. And I suspect THAT would be a far more satisfying – and revealing – experience. And I bet Mr. Wilde would believe so, too!

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
Blackbird Theatre, 1600 Pauline, Ann Arbor. Friday-Sunday through May 9. $10-$20. 734-332-3848.

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