By D. A. Blackburn
The life and work of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde have inspired many a thespian, many a historian and many an author, but a new work created by two Detroit theater ex-pats and set to debut at the Planet Ant this weekend promises a wholly unique look at the Irishman’s final years – through the troubled eyes of Sebastian Melmoth. And what’s more, “The Madness of Oscar Wilde by Sebastian Melmoth” just may be bound for the world’s most prestigious fringe festival.
“My involvement with Oscar Wilde actually began in Texas,” said actor and author Glen Allen Pruett. “I was doing a performance of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ and I got a review saying how interesting it was that the actor playing Algernon looked so much like Wilde himself.”
It was this review that started a long-term immersion into the world of Wilde for Pruett. Shortly after leaving Texas, he engaged a friend to write a one-man show based on the playwright’s early life. Pruett debuted “A Picture of Oscar Wilde” at Detroit’s 1515 Broadway in 1991, and later moved the production to Performance Network, where it played to sold out houses.
But Pruett’s work with Wilde was not to stop when the curtain came down on “Picture” for the last time. In 2000, John Peakes called to cast Pruett in the BoarsHead’s production of “Gross Indecencies.” To keep himself fully engaged while not in rehearsal, Pruett set to studying Wilde’s final artistic expression, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but it wasn’t until some years later that a chance connection set “Madness” into motion.
“I opened up Facebook, and I started doing a profile,” explained director Patricia Ansuini, who was then living in Pasadena, California. “Next thing I know, when I opened my e-mail, I had 38 e-mails from people saying, ‘Oh my God, is that where you are?’ And Glen found me that way. That’s what really reunited us.”
Both Pruett and Ansuini have significant history in Detroit’s theater scene – Pruett having extensive history in the University of Michigan’s Professional Theater Program and with Meadow Brook Theatre, Ansuini teaching at Wayne State University, where she co-founded an MFA program in stage management. They met in 1984 while working on a production at Detroit’s Attic Theatre – another regular outlet for the pair – before departing Michigan (separately) to pursue other professional opportunities.
By the time of their reconnection, Pruett had landed firmly in Chicago, and fortuitously, Ansuini was planning a cross-country move to the Chicago-land area. Last April, while Ansuini was on a pre-move visit to Illinois, the two met for lunch, and Pruett presented the first 20 minutes of his interpretation of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.
“When I was done, she went, ‘Man, that is really strong.’ I said, ‘Well, I could really use a director,’ so she got on board,” said Pruett.
The two began a long-distance dialogue about the work, and in July, when Ansuini had finally made the move, they began rehearsals in earnest. From the outset, both realized that they wanted the play to be an exploration of Oscar Wilde, and they began to speculate about the playwright’s frame of mind in the years following his imprisonment, while exiled in Paris, living under the assumed name Sebastian Melmoth.
“In our discussions we realized that Wilde must have been pretty messed up when he got out of jail. He must have been very disoriented. He’d gone through horrific things,” said Ansuini. “Not only the trial, but being found guilty of gross indecency, thrown in jail for two years at hard labor, his beloved mother died while he was in jail, his wife had become estranged from him, and not only divorced him but also prohibited him from seeing his children for the rest of his life.”
Both also agreed that the production needed to be more than merely a recitation of Wilde’s poem.
“Our conceit is that this is about Oscar. It becomes a special language to the ear, rather than a poem with six sections and multiple stanzas. That goes away. Why? Because Oscar, the Oscar that we see and the art that Glen employs, turns that from a recitation of a poem to the living agony of this man,” said Ansuini.
Planet Ant and beyond
To date, “The Madness of Oscar Wilde by Sebastian Melmoth” has only played to a handful of close friends and colleagues – including Wayne State University’s Lavinia Hart, who got the ball rolling and suggested they bring the production to the Planet Ant. The three-show engagement is intended to showcase the work for major players in the industry, as well as area patrons, but it’s also about gaining crucial input for Pruett and Ansuini.
“I think feedback is a huge issue for us,” said Pruett. “We’re going to learn a lot just by being in front of an audience. That’s half the gig, I think, just learning what the audience is going to teach us.”
They also hope the engagement will help them secure future bookings and garner positive press, essentially building momentum towards their ultimate goal: taking the show to Edinburgh, Scotland for the 2010 Fringe Festival.
Just as Hart has worked to open doors for the production in Detroit, others have stepped up to guide Pruett and Ansuini to Scotland. A close friend from Pruett’s days at the University of Michigan connected the pair with John Clancy and Nancy Walsh, co-founders of the New York International Fringe Festival and the duo behind Clancy Productions, which has taken countless works to the Edinburgh festival.
“From all the images, and our concept and in talking to them, they say this is perfect for the Fringe,” said Pruett. “And basically, they told us that they would do wonderful things for us. These guys are like the gurus of the Edinburgh Festival.”
Pruett and Ansuini have also already booked a second engagement in Wisconsin, and begun negotiations to bring the work to Houston, Texas – largely on their reputations, through friendships and word of mouth. With the strong support the production has already received, there’s a high probability that it will make it to Edinburgh, but Ansuini is cautious in keeping her eyes focused on the immediate hurdles they face.
“I just hope as many people as possibly can – without breaking the fire code – cram themselves into the Planet Ant to see the work of Glen Allen Pruett. It’s really amazing, and it’s breathtaking and it’s a chance to see the art and craft of a master.”
‘The Madness of Oscar Wilde by Sebastian Melmoth’
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff St., Hamtramck. 8 p.m. Nov. 20 and 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 21. Half the seating will be reserved for invitation holders only; the remaining seats will be available on a first come, first served basis until five minutes before curtain when all remaining seats become available. Free; donations accepted. 231-649-2042. http://www.planetant.com