I don't think it would surprise anyone familiar with the Tucson theater world that if someone were taking bets that some practicing artist in that world would be "going rogue"—in the most positive sort of way, generally speaking—the odds would favor smart, talented, passionate and mercurial Christopher Johnson.
So The Rogue Theatre would not be a far-fetched place to find him. He has been associated with The Rogue in a number of ways over their several years, but there is a new role for him there this summer. He has adapted Oscar Wilde's only novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," for the stage, and he is directing this adaptation in a surprise summer showing at the theater.
Johnson was introduced to Wilde in high school, playing the character of Algernon in "The Importance of Being Ernest," and to say he was deeply affected by this introduction is an understatement.
"I went on to read everything that he had written. I just fell in love with his language and with the way he delivers truth wrapped in this beautiful, decorative aestheticism. That's never really left me. I was overwhelmed with the sheer beauty and the astounding critical and satirical content of his work.
"'Dorian Gray' was my favorite of everything he'd ever done. It seemed to me it epitomizes everything he had to say about society, about being a closeted homosexual, and Victorian puritanism and, of course art, and the meaning of art and taking art too seriously and not seriously enough."
Wow. Most of what I remember about "Dorian Gray" from my school days was just this guy who sort of sold his soul so he could keep looking young and handsome, while the portrait of him looking young and handsome did the aging.
But Johnson saw the novel's real home was on stage, and "over the years I have collected various stage adaptations of the novel. But none of them had ever really captured what I loved about the piece, which was the purity of Wilde's voice," always got lost in the adaptors' treatment of the story. Johnson says this "is understandable, but for me they were too far removed from the novel itself."
Of course, Wilde could never have staged such a play; he would have been arrested at the theater. In fact, the book was used against him in court years later when he was convicted of gross indecency and imprisoned.
"This story is the only way he could talk about issues of sexuality, and particularly of homosexuality. However explicit it is or is not stated, he was addressing what damage it does to deny one's inherent feelings. It's about the danger of hiding who you are. Whatever 'debauchery' is there comes out of having to live a double life."
Johnson has cast Danielle Dryer as Dorian Gray. The two have worked together closely for ten or so years, and they have a rather extraordinary artistic relationship. Johnson says "she has been a muse to me." He has cast her in what are usually considered male roles before, but in a "sneaky way, sort of in the background." But from the beginning of the process, Johnson knew that Dryer was the right choice. Dryer is moving away in a few months, and Johnson wanted to do a final project with her before she goes. This seemed perfect.
Johnson said his adaptation "sort of exploded out of me" after the very first read-through of Rogue's Cynthia Meier's adaptation of some of Virginia Woolf's work into a play, "The Lady in the Looking Glass," that Rogue produced quite successfully this last season.
Meier, who is the associate artistic director and managing director of Rogue, as well as one of its founders, said that the group had not planned to do a summer show. "We're usually really worn out by the end of the season," she said. But Johnson asked if it would be possible to do a reading of his adaptation, and when the group reading concluded, Meier said, she "looked at Joe (McGrath) and said, 'we have to do this.'" And McGrath, who is artistic director of the theater, instantly agreed.
Johnson says that it's "really a great summer show. It's whip-smart; it's surprisingly sexy; it's got fun and horror elements." As well, he said, "It is so rich. What an extraordinary historical picture it presents. It's really the beginning of the end of the period when homosexuality wasn't an identity. It was a sin and a crime. It was an unlawful act. It being a part of what an individual was wasn't even a concept."
Although he has made some "structural changes" to the novel's story, everything else "is lifted right out of the novel. I just trimmed the novel away from the play that had been there."
Johnson is anxious for "the most important character" in the play, the audience, to be present. "At the center of the play is this literal object, and you never see it. I hope they will become more curious about what their own portrait looks like.
"The Picture of Dorian Gray"
Presented by The Rogue Theatre
7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 16 through July 26; additional matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 25
The Rogue at the Historic Y
300 E. University Blvd.
$32; $22 for Thursday, July 16, preview
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission