I know I've lost an arm-wrestling match with a classic piece of literature if I can easily follow a story from beginning to end and don't feel confused, yet just can't shake that feeling of not knowing what the big effing deal was. But you know you've been lucky enough to stumble upon an excellent theater experience when such a story is brought to life in a way that keeps you thinking about it nevertheless. And if it the whole thing happens in a mysterious under-construction resurrection of an outlet mall with security gates clanking down and electric drills and sanders running all through the first act, somebody's going to Heaven for sure, as my mother-in-law sometimes asserts.
Katherine Stewart, an excellent actor and director who co-founded Desert Rose Theatre in 2005, was gracious and upbeat in the curtain speech for her adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray as she welcomed us to her company's third venue so far this season. I'm confident that if the whole enterprise that is Mesa's Power Square Mall doesn't go under by next fall, things will keep looking up, and it certainly can't be any worse than last season's DRT roost between a piano store and some lady who scheduled live children's storytime during the troupe's performances. In the meantime, sit close to the playing area, grab the available blankets until the A/C gets fine-tuned, and enjoy a company that's devoted to the classics and wins awards for a reason.
Maybe Oscar Wilde's only novel, which happens to be much more serious in tone than most of his plays, made more sense against the backdrop of British philosophical movements of 1890. It was rewritten several times for a variety of reasons, and passages of its dialogue were incorporated into Wilde's 1893 play A Woman of No Importance. Wilde apparently avoided a John Fogerty-style self-plagiarism lawsuit for the reappropriation, though two years of hard labor and a punctured eardrum for his later "gross indecency" conviction were no picnic. (Note: Don't advise a friend to sue someone for libel unless the scurrilous rumor a) really isn't true and b) doesn't implicate him in a felony if it is. Honestly, with friends like Bosie . . .)
Every time Dorian Gray's been made into a film, the theme and the moral (not to mention the plot and characters) come out a little differently, so I'm not the only one who's prone to misinterpreting it. You'd think that the story of a portrait that ages while the subject stays young and handsome would be a slam-dunk of creativity, but it turns out Dorian Gray is just a crappy person who wishes he weren't, it's about his sins a lot more than it is about his appearance, and I get the feeling the rest of the premise is all kind of hallucinatory and/or metaphorical. Lots of people age well; lots of paintings look different depending who's looking and what's on their mind.
Many of the famous Wildean bons mots come from the novel's character Lord Henry Wotton, and it's slightly unnerving to hear them in a non-comic context. But I can't say enough about the acting and staging in this production. Most of the ensemble members play three or four characters -- everyone except Carson Saline, as Dorian, doubles at least once -- and they do a virtually flawless job of distinguishing among them, while Stewart, who directed, knows how to shift focus to keep the illusion working.
Saline, who also contributed to the lavish, exceptional costumes, looks very young and handsome indeed, and he plays Dorian with such nuance I could very nearly feel for him. Much of the play, nicely trimmed from the novel by Stewart, still consists of long conversations, but Saline and his co-stars Joshua Scott Hunt (as Wotton) and Kellen Garner (as artist Basil Hallward) make them work, from beginning to end. It's both intellectually compelling -- in a way that's rare these days -- and suspenseful, like a good action flick.
The set changes were long, frequent, and pointless, creating precious little difference among the fin-de-siècle interiors (which somehow still shared sconces, wallpaper, and draperies). I mention this mostly because it was an additional obstacle that still did not keep me from appreciating and enjoying a show that beautifully blends dedication with actual talent.
The Picture of Dorian Gray continues through Saturday, May 5, at 2055 South Power Road in Mesa. For Desert Rose Theatre tickets, click here or call 1-800-838-3006. They're $14 to $18 at the door; additional fees apply to online orders from Brown Paper Tickets.