Oscar Wilde was badass. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, pissed off the British literati so much they deemed it immoral and later used it as evidence in an indecency trial. As a result, Wilde spent two years in Reading Gaol, a jail in Reading, Berkshire, about which he wrote one of his final poems, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” In it he succinctly restated the tragic core of his novel: “Each man kills the thing he loves/Yet each man does not die.”
Wilde was a great poet, but he wasn’t a mind-blowing tragedy writer. So while Alisa Stewart’s stage adaptation of his novel for Beaverton’s Experience Theatre Project is ambitious, it suffers when Wilde’s characters shift from believable people into poignant observation machines that serve only to move the play forward.
The archetypal gist of Dorian Gray is as follows: a man sells his soul for everlasting youth and descends into hedonistic self-destruction. Eventually, he has only a cursed portrait for company. The play is a philosophical argument against narcissism, cynicism, idealization, and devaluation.
Interestingly, Katherine Grant-Suttie stars as Dorian Gray but—although gender-bending is a welcome device—Grant-Suttie’s casting muddies rather than magnifies Wilde’s commentary about 19th century masculinity. It feels like a missed opportunity to draw clear, deep parallels between Wilde’s time and ours via Dorian Gray’s need to possess, idealize, and devalue women.
The immersive world of Experience Theatre almost makes up for Dorian Gray’s shortcomings. The show is performed promenade-style, so the audience follows the actors through different rooms and scenes—a seamless effect that feels like flowing through a long dream. It’s possible to be so dazzled by the butlers pouring champagne and Debussy arabesques fluttering through the air that the awkward poignancy bits become less of an issue.
Dorian Gray’s elegant costuming and props truly transport viewers to another era. So, if recreations of 19th-century parlor culture are your jam, you should make it a point to see Dorian Gray. But if you’re at all melodrama-intolerant, just sit this one out.