Rogue Theatre member Christopher Johnson loves the works of Oscar Wilde. In fact, Johnson was so passionate and articulate when I interviewed him two years ago, prior to the opening of his adaptation of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, that I was really looking forward to seeing it. While that enterprise was disappointing, with Johnson's new adaptation of Wilde's stories, A House of Pomegranates, he has totally redeemed himself.
The script, based upon three of Wilde's short stories, was given a wondrous production by Rogue in conjunction with Artifact Dance Project. Directed by Joseph McGrath, with choreography by Ashley Bowman, the stories represent quite different aspects of Wilde's talents, but are well enough chosen that they work together. Between Johnson's adaptation, the capable cast members who take on multiple roles, the production style and the delightful dance choreography, the stories braid together to make a fascinating whole.
The first story, "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," reflects Wilde's great wit, satire and love of irony. When an honorable man engaged to be married is told by a chiromantist (palm reader) that he is destined to kill a man, he decides he should postpone his marriage, thinking it will be unfair to his betrothed to get her mixed up in such unpleasantness. If he is destined to kill someone, he will do it now, discreetly, so that he and his intended can get on with things. Lord Arthur can then be confident, knowing that he has taken charge of the "terrible mystery of destiny." Lord Arthur makes several attempts to fulfill his "destiny," but each is unsuccessful. So, he keeps postponing his marriage, and that looks bad.
Rogue regular Ryan Parker Knox plays Lord Arthur with great glee as he fumes and fusses about his aborted attempts to fulfill what he believes is his fate, although he had pooh-poohed the whole idea of palm-reading when it was offered to him at the polite, high-society gathering of Lady Windermere (a very funny Cynthia Meier.) This is the dark and wicked Wilde we know and love.
The second story, "The Happy Prince," is a children's fable embodied with breathtaking sweetness. A statue in the square, decorated with jewels and covered in gold leaf, commemorates the young man, who, when he lived the life of a prince, knew nothing of the sorrow and poverty and illness that he discovers as looks out over the city from his pedestal. He befriends a sparrow (Claire Hancock), convincing the bird to remove the jewels and gold of his statue and distribute them to those in need. The sparrow should be migrating with her friends to Egypt for the winter, but the Prince keeps her so busy that she stays behind, inviting disaster for them both.
Holly Griffith, moving not a muscle as her princely statue, and the sparrow form a friendship so sweet that it remains with you long after the play ends. Hancock fashions a creature so dear, with movement so affecting, that our hearts are pierced with the beauty of her selflessness.
These two stories comprise the first act. "The Fisherman and His Soul" constitutes the second. It's a much more ponderous tale, rich with thought and a hefty dose of philosophy and theology. A fisherman (Knox) falls in love with a mermaid, but cannot join her and her sea-creature friends because he has a soul and they do not. He has no use for his soul, he thinks, and so wishes to be rid of it. The fisherman actually separates himself from his soul, but it wanders the land, trying to find ways to reunite with its human body.
The plot is a rather complicated course of action, but fortunately, the story lends itself to the use of dance, which lifts the tale. Not only does the choreography successfully create a sense of the story's place and progression, it provides visual delight with its use of sheer, billowy fabric that represents the fisherman's net and the ocean. The dancers are responsible for the success of this story's adaptation.
One of the central difficulties of adapting pieces of fiction to the stage is how to incorporate the narration, which is almost always necessary to include, since the action and dialogue in a story are not designed to be delivered in the same fashion as a play. The challenge is how to maintain the integrity of the story-telling within the context of a theatrical production. With Pomegranates, Johnson has made the right choices. Though each of the three stories' narration is handled quite differently, in no case is it intrusive nor distracting. It helps that the dimension of dance renders the story-telling more presentational, opening new possibilities for how to tell the tales. It also helps that the actors are very skilled.
Much credit for the success of the show rests with musical director Jake Sorgen, who has become a regular contributor to most of Rogue's shows. His original compositions are performed live, underscoring the action and providing another dimension that lifts the effectiveness of the storytelling, without being distracting.
All the design elements work well and the entire onstage company, dancers and actors, offer their skills in just the right balance. The result is a show that is delightful, and even magical.