How does a stage director handle a classic in a swiftly changing culture?
By Brian Marks
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the major dividing line in the life of Oscar Wilde, the work that separates his earlier poetry, essays, and journalism from the masterpieces of the stage that followed. In Wilde’s Faustian novella, the eponymous Gray sells his soul in exchange for unchanging youth; meanwhile, a portrait documenting his physical beauty records the decay of his soul. The tale was first published, in magazine form, in 1890. Wild’s fortunes rapidly deteriorated in the wake of the story’s controversial gay themes, and in 1895 he was imprisoned for homosexual relationships. Ten years after Dorian Gray’s publication he would die in France, destitute and ostracized.
Michael Michetti, Artistic Director for theatre at Boston Court, is currently directing a theatrical adaptation of Wilde’s novella for Pasadena’s A Noise Within. Michetti, who is the recipient of two Ovation awards and four LADCC awards, originally adapted the work for a 2006 Boston Court production. His adaptation of Dorian Gray downplays the novella’s surface level gothic horror, instead emphasizing the homoerotic aspect of the story, much of which was edited out of the original manuscript. Michetti has also previously directed Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at A Noise Within.
@ThisStage: The first thing that struck me when looking into the production was that you’ve called it “A Picture of Dorian Gray,” rather than “The Picture . . . ” I assume there has to be significance to such a change.
Michetti: I had been working on it when it was produced for Boston Court twelve years ago, and I had been working on it for many years before that, and it was always called “The Picture of Dorian Gray” all the way through that process. I had read so many stage adaptations and seen so many films of it, and I was trying to be true to Wilde’s intent and spirit, but I realized after we chose to program it that every adaptation is singular. There’s something about acknowledging the singularity of my approach to it that I thought was interesting. There are other ways to look at this picture.
@ThisStage: What was it about Dorian Gray that first drew your attention?
Michetti: I had read it when I was a teenager and had seen the famous 1945 film, and was sort of aware of the character. I began reading some other Wilde, some of his plays. I’m guessing that I read the novel of Dorian Gray before I read Wilde’s plays. So as I was looking at those, I was sort of intrigued by my memory of the novel, and went back to it. What excited me was that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I was excited by the fact that I remembered it sort of as a gothic horror story, which is a totally relevant reading of it, but for me, the psychological journey of it was so much more interesting than the supernatural or macabre aspects of it. I thought he had really identified human traits and human behavior really thoughtfully, and in ways that we don’t see as much in his theatre work (as beautiful as his plays are).
The second thing, which I probably knew as a kid but had forgotten on the rereading of it, was how startled I was by the gay component of it. The 1945 film entirely eradicates it, and many adaptations also had erased the gay component, which is abundantly clear in the novel, particularly in terms of Basil the painter’s affection for Dorian, which is made very explicit in the novel.
I did more research and discovered the published novel that most of us are familiar with is not the original version of it — it was first published in a literary magazine, Lippincott’s, and that version was considered too scandalous, so Wilde himself edited some aspects of that before it was published in the version most of us know now. I’ve used the published novel version as the dramaturgical structure for it, but went back to the Lippincott’s to restore things that had been erased prior to publication.
@ThisStage: Wilde’s plays are performed fairly often, but The Picture of Dorian Gray shows up less often in repertory theatre than his other shows. What can more casual Wilde fans expect from A Picture of Dorian Gray?
Michetti: There’s a quote from Wilde about the novel, which I’m slightly paraphrasing, but it’s that Lord Henry is who the world thinks [Wilde] is, Basil is who [Wilde] thinks he is, and Dorian is who [Wilde] would like to be, in another time, perhaps. I think that there is something that he has written, “It is almost as though they are three aspects of a single person.” The overly simplistic reading is that it’s sort of the devil and angel on Dorian’s shoulder, but more complex than that is that within all of us, there are the parts that would like to live life with as much privilege and freedom as Dorian has. There are those of us who would like to affect change on people, and that’s sort of the way that Harry does. And there are aspects of us that want to do our best and come from a loving place and take responsibility for all those things, as Basil encourages. So I find myself identifying with all three of the central characters in different ways.
One of the things I always feel is that I am less interested in any kind of dramatized story that vilifies a character so much — particularly an antagonist — that the danger seems like it is out there. I am always more interested in something that reveals something from within, where I identify with someone who is behaving in a less than ideal way. So there are things about Dorian’s character — while certainly he is very different than I am — there are things about what he is seeking and the way he makes mistakes and the way he gets trapped in the cycles of his mistakes that I absolutely identify with.
There are four different writing styles for Wild — I’m oversimplifying — but his plays are generally of a certain high style and witty. His poems are quite beautiful and rich and florid. His letter writing style is interesting because it is actually a little more like his writing style for Dorian Gray; it’s a little more straightforward. He reveals himself a little bit more. It’s a little more direct, but equally insightful and thoughtful. When I look at the body of his writing there’s something about the novel that feels a little closer to his letter writing style than his other literary works.
@ThisStage: What sort of things are you looking for when casting the three major roles?
Michetti: Casting roles is tricky. The first person who was cast is Frederick Stuart, who is playing Lord Henry. Freddy is a resident artist [at A Noise Within] and I’ve worked with him previously; he played the title roles in both my productions of Hamlet and The Guardsman. I love working with him and I thought of him right away. What Freddy has is tremendous facility with language — he’s British, so that helps tremendously. He’s great with the aphorisms, with the humor. There’s something about Freddy that feels a little naughty and decadent, but he’s also deeply soulful. There are a few places in the play where the mask drops from Harry a little bit, and Freddy has tremendous access to those things.
Amin El Gamal, who is playing Basil, is an actor who had auditioned for me before and I had seen in many things. I had never worked with him before, but he was the first person who occurred to me for the role, so I’m thrilled to be working with him. Amin has a wonderful access to a heart-driven vulnerability and intelligence, both of which are crucial for Basil. I always find him very empathetic, which is important.
And, of course, the tricky one was casting the role of Dorian, who has to have certain physical characteristics. He needs to be beautiful and youthful and charming and dynamic. He also has to have, despite being a youthful actor, have a deep well and a lot of craft. The other things that compound the challenge for this production is that there is a movement component of the play. There’s a 13-minute-long narrative dance sequence that tells story, so Dorian needs to be able to move as well, and there’s also nudity in the production, so you need an actor who’s comfortable with that.
I saw a lot of actors, and I cast Colin in a way that I had never done for a role of this significance before. He had been recommended by a couple of people, but I was told that he was doing a film in France and was unavailable, but then he was recommended again by a mutual friend. I was told that he had been living in multiple places. He first did a taped audition for me from France, then we had a phone conversation, and then did a long Skype call back when he was in New York, and I cast him based on that. So the first time I met was actually the first day of rehearsal, which is a bit risky, but I felt that, between the recommendations and the phone call and Skype session, we had a sense of how we would work together. Colin is a wonderful actor and a great artist and has been a great collaborator on this mountain of a role. He’s on stage for all but seven minutes of the play.
@ThisStage: At lunch earlier today, I saw a person using Instagram on their phone, and it got me thinking about how we create idealized lives online that are fantasies, which in turn reminded me of Dorian Gray. How do you think the play’s themes resonate with contemporary society?
Michetti: Having done it twelve years ago, in 2006, it felt very of the moment. Of course, the moment changes. It still feels of the moment, although in a different way. Obviously, a big thematic element of the story is about a sort of narcissism that he has. In this selfie, social media era there is a kind of narcissism about that. That feels more emphasized in this production — not necessarily because of anything we’re doing, but just because it reflects the world around us.
Also, I think we have an ability to have a life of a certain kind of privilege that allows people to do things for pleasure, at least in urban environments like Los Angeles. It’s not about hand-to-mouth so much, it’s not about survival, it’s about how do I fill my life with things that make me feel good? Obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pleasure and experiences and seeking beauty. But there is something wrong if the focus on those things becomes disproportionate to everything else in our life, or if we use those things as drugs to anesthetize ourselves from things that are gnawing at us, which Dorian does. So those themes seem very relevant. I see it all the time in my friends and in my life.
A Picture of Dorian Gray runs through November 16 at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, click here.
Read the review in Stage Raw.