Arts Listings

Shotgun Players Stage ‘Vera Wilde’ at the Ashby Stage

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

Vera Wilde is a fable about the way society eats its heroes,” Shotgun Players founder Patrick Dooley quoted director Maya Gurantz’s anthropophagic line when introducing Chris Jeffries’ heady musical on opening night.  

Gurantz, founder of Temescal Labs (nee Ten Red Hen) and director of The 99-Cent Miss Saigon and Clown Bible, amplified the analysis in her program notes: “More precisely, how people who lead the fight against society’s restrictions are simultaneously celebrated and destroyed by the people they attempt to change.” 

This cannibalistic fable is deliciously laid out on the Ashby Stage, backed by the angular, vertiginous London row houses—windows like vacant, staring eyes—stylized and etched in black and white by Lisa Clark, who designed the sets for Shotgun’s Love Is a Dream House in Lorin and Bullrusher.  

Like a musical—and humorous—chain letter, Vera Wilde’s predicated on another play, Oscar Wilde’s forgotten maiden run, Vera, or the Nihilists, inspired by the 1878 trial of Vera Zasulich, dubbed “the Mother of Terrorism,” despite her later protests of violent means, who shot Czarist General Trepov and was acquitted of a charge of attempted murder, setting off a spate of reforms—and further acts of provocation. (Zasulich later collaborated on the revolutionary newspaper The Spark with Lenin while in Swiss exile. She followed the Mensheviks in the split with the Bolsheviks, returning to Russia during the 1905 Revolution, dying in 1919.)  

Vera Wilde takes off in a succession of scenes that parallels the lives of these two seekers after scandal, who refitted obloquy as a means for social critique, only to be permanently branded with the stereotype of the headlines. Clever songs and quick production numbers, featuring Brittany Brown Ceres’ spot-on choreography, rise out of and burlesque the storytelling, as when a pained, fur-coated Oscar (played by deft, deliciously arch Sean Owen) looks on while a New York husband-and-wife vaudeville team (Edward Brauer and Danielle Levin), who have bought the rights to Vera, crank it out as a tear-jerker in old melodrama style, while happily trouping through a musical number about their revisions to Wilde’s text. (Vera closed after three days in New York, its only staging.) 

Like a screwy musical docu-drama that parodies its subject, Vera Wilde then jumps the tracks, confabulating its protagonists’ otherwise distinct lives: Oscar steps in as Vera’s defense attorney (Alexandra Creighton as Vera), comparing her to Judith beheading Holofernes in a song and dance: “It’s written in the Bible, but so’s ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’/ This proved that Judith’s act accorded with a higher will”—while at his own trial for immoral behavior, Oscar sees himself, like Vera, as Joan of Arc but with wit, not visions and voices. (His wry shafts bounce off the armor of relentless prosecutor Carson, played by Tyler Kent.)  

This self-deprecatory boisterousness finds its avatar in Gurantz’s ever-active staging and her cast of five troupers’ constant ability to turn on a dime and change character. Dave Malloy’s raggy orchestrations are put across swingingly by a little combo that bubbles along. 

It’s one of the most interesting, exciting shows ever on the Ashby Stage, though Jeffries’ funny, speculative script passively reverts at times to the kind of storytelling it mostly burlesques: A Methuselah of a Lenin (Tyler Kent again) stands for the usual caricature of the opportunist revolutionary, absorbing trite images of other historical figures—and Wilde is regarded too much as the effete dandy of legend, mistaking the mask for the man, merely a gadfly spouting absurdities to cover what he “really wanted to say.” His family background in Irish nationalism is never mentioned, nor how Nonsense proved a via negativa contra the Anglo-Saxon positivism of the British Empire, as nihilism’s denial countered the absolutism of Victoria’s cousin, the Czar. 

Vera Wilde is exhilarating when its players are set loose, becoming theatrical figures more than characters or caricatures—personae, able to give voice and embody (and show the humor of) whole complexes, problems, historical situations greater than self-involved individuals. A perfect mode to show what happens to the willing or unwilling martyr, the person in the news who carries it “too far” and becomes a symbol.  

As Wilde said shortly before his death to André Gide, gently criticizing Gide’s own early self-mythologizing lyric prose, “Promise me that you’ll never, ever say ‘I’ again—because in a work of art, there is no first person.” 


8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 19 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $17-$25. 841-6500.