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Review: An unabashed 'Dorian Gray' documents a psychosexual descent into hedonism

Review: An unabashed 'Dorian Gray' documents a psychosexual descent into hedonism
Colin Bates in "A Picture of Dorian Gray" at A Noise Within. (Craig Schwartz)

Youth is wasted on the young, the saying goes, but for Oscar Wilde’s infamously debauched protagonist, Dorian Gray, it’s more a case of “youth is wasted.”

In a departure from traditional dramatizations, “A Picture of Dorian Gray” at A Noise Within emphasizes the psychosexual elements, rather than the Gothic horror, in Wilde’s cautionary novella about a devil’s bargain that allows a callous Victorian-era dandy to remain untouched by time while his sins are instead manifested in a supernatural portrait of his aging, decaying image.

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Director Michael Michetti revisits his stylish, studiously researched adaptation — originally staged in 2006 for Pasadena’s Boston Court Theatre (where he is a co-artistic director) — amid a radically different social context for gay rights and awareness. As suggested by the slightly altered title, this version differs from others in three principal ways: greater fidelity to Wilde’s text; illuminating its usually downplayed homoerotic themes; and incorporating Wilde’s assertion that its romantic triangle of principal characters represents different facets of the author himself.

Specifically, Michetti envisions the beautiful, innocent Dorian (Colin Bates) as the idealized person Wilde aspired to be — beautiful, innocent and too pure for the vagaries of the world. In the painfully introverted painter Basil (Amin El Gamal), lies the soul of Wilde’s artistic passion, while the cynical corrupter Lord Henry (Frederick Stuart) embodies Wilde’s public persona as the witty social butterfly.

Bates effectively charts Dorian’s moral decline, beginning with jilting his fiancée (Chelsea Kurtz) and ending in murder. Stuart’s wry delivery draws laughs with typically Wildean aphorisms (“The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary.”) El Gamal’s Basil is a poignantly heartsick figure, though his British accent focuses on the inflection of each word at the expense of pacing.

Visually, the show is a striking mix of period costumes and ornate movable set pieces contrasted with an abstract scenic design bedecked with empty picture frames. The stylized frame conceit includes the all-important supernatural portrait, elegantly sidestepping the need for literal paintings to capture Dorian’s progressively rotting soul. Unlike Dorian’s portrait, though, his anatomy leaves nothing to the imagination, as the staging includes substantial nudity.

Impressively constructed from Wilde’s own prose and dialogue, Michetti’s adaptation restores some of the more overtly homosexual content from the story’s original publication in serialized form, which was later toned down for the more familiar book.

“Dorian Gray” was not a play, however, and not all of Wilde’s text lends itself to the stage. A ballet opening the second act depicts the passage of years, inventively flanked by the seated Basil and Henry applying their aging make-up while Dorian remains unchanged — but an overlaid narrative with densely philosophical musings competes for our attention rather than enhancing the physical movement.

In the course of Dorian’s descent into hedonism, do we really need to hear in detail about his obsession with jewelry, perfume and music? “A Picture” is certainly worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t really need 20 times as many.

“A Picture of Dorian Gray,” A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Runs in repertory; see website for schedule. Ends Nov. 16. $25-$91. (626) 356-3121 or anoisewithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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