Brandon J. Simmons as Lord Henry Wotton. Photo by John Ulman.
Brandon J. Simmons as Lord Henry Wotton. Photo by John Ulman.

While trying to decide how best not to celebrate our dear leader’s birthday (June 14), suddenly it came to me. Why not attend a play about a man who sells his soul to look forever young and handsome, indulges his hedonistic sexual proclivities, and then blackmails, drives to suicide, or murders those who discover his secret?

As it happens, Book-It Repertory Theatre is presenting such a story — a new adaptation of the original uncensored manuscript of Oscar Wilde’s one and only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”  Deftly directed by Victor Pappas, it was adapted for the stage by Judd Parkin. (It was not published until 2011.) Those familiar with the book will notice that several scenes have been removed from this adaptation.

Long before the decadence and violence of “Game of Thrones,” Wilde scandalized Victorian England with his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” first published complete in the July 1890 issue of “Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.” Fearing the story was indecent, the magazine's editor — without Wilde's knowledge — deleted roughly 500 words before publication. Despite that censorship, Wilde’s novel offended the moral sensibilities of Victorian society and British book reviewers who denounced its homosexual allusions: "Unclean, poisonous, and heavy with the mephitic odors of moral and spiritual putrefaction."

Now, thanks to Parkin, Wilde’s licentious 500 words are back and overflowing with the original homoerotic undercurrents, aka “the love that dare not speak its name.”

Wilde’s tale begins innocently when the well-known artist Basil Hallward meets narcissistic Dorian Gray, a cultured, wealthy, and impossibly beautiful young man. Basil is artistically — and perhaps sexually — smitten and asks Dorian to sit for a portrait. Along comes Lord Henry Wotton who declares Basil’s painting a masterpiece. The manipulative Lord Henry enthralls Dorian with his hedonistic philosophy: Beauty and sensual fulfillment are the only things worth pursuing in life. So says the wily Lord Henry, who laments that only the young truly benefit.

Like Goethe’s Faust, Dorian sells his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. He soon becomes Lord Henry’s disciple, pursuing a libertine life of varied and amoral experiences, all the while staying young and beautiful. Meanwhile, his portrait ages and rots with every act of debauchery and sin. Locking away the portrait, Dorian destroys everyone around him, inching closer and closer to madness.

The cast is superb. Chip Sherman perfectly captures the susceptible Dorian’s fall from grace, while Jon Lutyens personifies Basil, a sensitive artist painfully dealing with his obsessed yet repressed passion. But it is Brandon J. Simmons who has the audience in the palm of his hand, with his villainous charm and fawning demeanor as the wickedly charismatic roué, Lord Henry Wotton.

Anastasia Higham plays two of Dorian’s discarded women. As the aspiring actress Sibyl, Higham’s Shakespearean soliloquies are divinely dreadful. A foreboding chorus of four — Ian Bond, Imogen Love, Michael Patten — ignite Wilde’s words. They also take on minor characters as needed.

Add to that, an ominous ambience, courtesy of Pete Rush’s set and Andrew D. Smith’s lighting.

As we watch this original rendition of "Dorian Gray,” we remember how Victorian society exacted its revenge on Wilde for flaunting a “Game of Thrones,”level of amorality. For that, he was sentenced two years of hard labor at Reading Gaol. He never returned to England, and died at age 46, penniless and alone. But his words and wit live on. As he so aptly quipped, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Oscar Wilde also said of his novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray,” that three of the characters were reflections of himself: ´”The artist Basil Hallward is what I think I am: the hedonist Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.”

This critic has seen film versions of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” And now has seen a stage adaptation of Wilde’s original version.  Despite Book-It’s polished production, I would hesitate to revisit either. 

However, I might be tempted to see “The Happy Prince,” an upcoming British biographical drama film about Oscar Wilde, written and directed by Rupert Everett, who also stars as Wilde. It premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festivaland will be released in the U.S, in October of this year. (The film's title alludes to the children's story by Wilde, “The Happy Prince”).

It has been bandied about that Book-It’s “Dorian Gray,” production is a “murky” must-see for gay pride. But I choose to remember Wilde though the brilliant and witty dialogue of his comedies.

And I prefer to celebrate Pride in a more positive way. I will march in the parades and join the protests. I will stand up for equality and denounce hate crimes. I will bake wedding cakes for one and all.

And maybe next June 14, I can forget about our dear leader’s birthday by slipping in my DVD of “The Birdcage” Just to see Gene Hackman in drag, showing a remarkable resemblance to that “Golden Girls,” icon, Bea Arthur.

Book-it Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” runs through July 1, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30pm (Matinées on June 23, 30) and Sundays at 2pm in the Center Theatre at the Armory. Tickets start at $26 (group rates available), and $15 tickets will be available to students during the entire run with valid school ID. Purchase at book-it.org or by calling the box office at 206.216.0833. The box office — located in the outer lobby of the Center Theatre — is open Tuesday through Saturday during the production run from noon to 5 p.m.


Jon Lutyens as Basil Halward in Book-It Repertory Theatre's production of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Photo by John Ulman