• Theater



Time Out says

The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre. By Tommy Rapley and Ben Lobpries. Directed by Rapley. With Cole Simon, Patrick Andrews, Manny Buckley, Alex Weisman, Lauren Pizzi, Kelley Abell. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.

Theater review by Kris Vire

Ben Lobpries and Tommy Rapley have revised their 2006 update/adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, first staged at the now-defunct Bailiwick Repertory, for a new production at the House Theatre of Chicago. I didn’t manage to see the widely acclaimed Bailiwick production before it closed, and regretted missing it almost immediately (even more so after it earned a spot on Time Out Chicago’s list of the 10 best plays of the year). After experiencing Rapley and Lobpries’s new version, I’m even sorrier, since it seems Dorian, unlike its title character, doesn’t have a supernatural force keeping it flawless.

As before, this Dorian is set loosely in the New York art scene of the 1980s, where painter Basil (Patrick Andrews) discovers the gorgeous but nervous Dorian (Cole Simon) and asks him to model. Dorian gets absorbed into Basil’s social circle, which includes bitchy critic Harry (Manny Buckley), aspiring gallerist Gladys (Lauren Pizzi), med student Alan (Alex Weisman) and dancer Sybil (Kelley Abell), along with an ensemble of anonymous club kids in Day-Glo hues. As Basil’s portrait of Dorian allows the latter to be expunged of  “pain, gain, shame and guilt,” not to mention any signs of aging, Dorian blithely injures one friend after another.

Rapley’s decision to stage his new production in promenade style is a major problem. I tend to appreciate the multiplicity of perspectives promenade affords (particularly when skillfully deployed by the Hypocrites' Sean Graney, a master of the form). But the Chopin Theatre’s mainstage proves too cramped to really explore, with scenic designer Collette Pollard’s raised platform creating a natural barrier to audience circulation upstage and ensemble members constantly pushing giant blocks through the crowd or shooing us out of the way to clear a playing space. Rapley and company like the idea of letting audience members roam, but in practice we’re pinned to either side of the stage with little room for movement.

Speaking of movement, the vaunted physical language created by Rapley (an unmistakably gifted choreographer, as demonstrated in multiple productions over the years) eight years ago seems to have been dialed back. Aside from a series of stylized, gestural motions representing the characters’ copious drinking, smoking and a pose by Dorian that apparently represents his offloading his sins to the painting, true dance sequences are too few and far between. Instead we get a more dialogue-driven rendering of Wilde’s tale, and dialogue has never been the strongest suit for any of the House’s resident playwrights.

Much of the basic storytelling here is tough to follow. Though Simon certainly fits the eye-candy aspect of Dorian’s role and develops a palpable chemistry with Andrews, his twitchy skittishness around strangers melts away without explanation, just as the character of Sybil disappears for a long stretch without mention despite being a major catalyst early on. It’s perplexingly difficult to track how time is passing throughout the piece, in fact; what feels like a day or two elapsing between scenes might be jarringly referenced in dialogue as 10 years.

As usual, the House has some intriguing visual tricks up its sleeve, including a recurring metaphor of barbed wire representing Dorian’s offenses. Then there’s the portrait itself—here depicted not by a live actor, as it was in the original, but in a series of manipulated photographs by artist Jeff Klapperich, projected in an enormous frame at the focal point of Pollard’s set. As arresting as the images are, they’re also rather literalist. You could be forgiven for wishing for something more Wilde-ly suggestive.


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