Monday, September 8, 2014

Fringe 2014: Slumming and The Masks of Oscar Wilde

A beautiful first weekend for the 30th anniversary of the Vancouver International Fringe Festival. On Sunday I saw two shows vastly different in structure, subject matter and tone, but that nevertheless shared at least one formal storytelling conceit.

First up was Batterjacks' production of Barbara Ellison's Slumming at Studio 16. Set on the steps of an abandoned church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the play is a two-hander that stages a territorial struggle between First Nations sex worker Britney (Sharon Crandall) and a white shopping cart lady named Grace (Terri Anne Taylor) who seems far too refined to be living on the street. When Britney, feeling happy and flush after a recent date, wakes Grace up with her singing, battle lines are quickly drawn. Arguing that she has every right to rest in the space, Britney says that she only needs three more good dates and then she'll be out of Grace's hair--off to Kelowna to collect her daughter Lillian, who's in foster care.

Soon an uneasy truce is established between the two women, who agree to share the space. However, when Britney returns from a bad date having been raped and robbed, the limits of Grace's empathy are put to the test. This is where the play, which up until this point has been trading rather broadly in some stock dramatic--and socio-cultural--clichés, veers into more surreal territory. When Britney requests of her new friend a story to calm her down, Grace (who by this point has traded her sweats and rain jacket for a blue cocktail dress and a string of pearls) quotes a few lines from Lady Macbeth and then launches into a fairy tale about a king and a queen. Not only does the shocking denouement of Grace's story come to explain why she's living on the street, but it also--as in most fairy tales--leads to a surprise parting gift for Britney.

Oscar Wilde wrote his share of fairy tales that also doubled as social and/or political allegories. The most famous of these is "The Happy Prince," which is the text that provides the thematic through-line to Shaul Ezer's The Masks of Oscar Wilde, written with the assistance of frank theatre's Chris Gatchalian. A hybrid performance piece that mixes the lecture format with shadow theatre, among other dramatic effects, the play is another two-hander, see-sawing dialectically back and forth between actors A and B (Sean Harris Oliver and Tamara McCarthy, respectively) in a manner reminiscent of one of Wilde's critical dialogues (e.g. "The Critic as Artist," or "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," which is actually referenced).

The frame conceit is that actor A is a contemporary academic giving a lecture on Wilde and his "four masks"--which he identifies as "man of letters," "aesthete," "Victorian moralist," and ... I forget the fourth. Actor B--who appears to be an avatar of Wilde himself--keeps interrupting A's lecture, insisting that he's leaving out at least two additional masks worn by the writer: "the disgraced sinner/persecuted victim" and "the martyr." At first A doesn't seem to see B (though he can hear her); eventually, however, the already thin dividing line between the real and the symbolic, present and past, collapses altogether as A and B perform a series of vignettes from Wilde's life. All of these are drawn from and animated by Wilde's writings, with the performers each taking a turn at playing his various characters (including delightful versions of Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell, from The Importance of Being Earnest), his loved ones (wife Constance and lover Bosie), antagonists (fellow Irishman Edward Carson, who went toe to toe with Wilde in court), and Wilde himself.

The results are never less than fully compelling, giving further credence to the idea--now taken as virtual dogma--that Wilde's greatest theatrical creation was himself. Ezer notes in the program that the inspiration for the play came from Peter Brook's Love is My Sin, based on Shakespeare's sonnets. But to my mind the clearer antecedent is Moisés Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a play from 1997 that is likewise redacted from Wilde's trial transcripts and supplemented by additional writings by the author. No matter the precise inspiration, The Masks of Oscar Wilde is still stirring stuff.


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