General Douglas MacArthur once quoted a popular army song: "Old soldiers never die; they only fade away." Chris Jeffries' musical play Vera Wilde is more about rebels and nonconformists than soldiers, but it's all about the fading away.
It skims the surface of the familiar life of playwright Oscar Wilde and the now-obscure one of anarchist revolutionary Vera Zasulich, who shot St. Petersburg governor General Trepov in 1878, becoming a symbol to a growing insurgent movement that would eventually culminate in the Russian Revolution. Though the flamboyant Irish wit and the fiery Russian agitator couldn't be more different, Zasulich was the subject of Wilde's first play, a colossal 1880 flop called Vera; or, the Nihilists.
In Jeffries' play, which debuted in Seattle in 2002 and is now at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage, these two lives intersect as they play out in opposite directions. Wilde moves from his last days in Parisian exile, broken by prison, to the cocky and flamboyant young Irishman who skims a newspaper article about Zasulich and thinks (incorrectly) that it would make a great play. Meanwhile Vera goes from a young girl playing Joan of Arc to an old woman forgotten by the revolution that she sparked.
The connective tissue between Wilde and Zasulich feels flimsy and forced, but it's what the play is about. If Jeffries stuck to the facts, he wouldn't have much to work with.
Take the scene in which Wilde takes his Vera to New York. The hilariously crass New York producers (Edward Brauer and Danielle Levin) launch into a song-and-dance number about all the ways he needs to tart up his script. He responds with the creative writing freshman's objection that it's not how things really happened, but gives in because he wants his play to succeed, which it doesn't.
This is, of course, pure balderdash. It's true that it's a terribly overwrought, melodramatic ending, but it's entirely Wilde's. But this song, "That's How a Show Should Go," is one of the highlights of the play, so it's hard to begrudge the poetic license.
Wilde's objection is especially ironic because Vera Wilde's Zasulich is no less romanticized and mythologized. While it's true that she knew Lenin in Switzerland and the two fell into opposite factions of revolutionary Marxist thought, all the details of their meeting and their split shown in the play are fictional. So is a scene in which an aging Zasulich goes to visit Wilde incognito in the hope that a revival of his play might recall her to life.
There's some great stuff in this scene, such as Zasulich gaping at the stilted antics of actors rehearsing A Woman of No Importance, appalled at its triviality while Wilde can scarcely contain guffaws at his own cleverness. But the desperate tone of the scene is heavy-handed, as is the implication that Zasulich herself has become a woman of no importance.
If the attempts to link the two lives directly are strained, the way Jeffries plays with parallels in the play is much more effective. Wilde's trial for gross indecency has already been thoroughly covered in Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency and other plays, but what's interesting in Vera Wilde is how Wilde's familiar historical courtroom wisecracks gradually give way to a repeat of Zasulich's trial, or at least of the cartoon grotesquery of it that Wilde relates in the scene immediately preceding it. It's the actual parallels that resonate when imaginatively brought to the surface, more than the imagined when-Oscar-met-Vera stuff.
There are a lot of innovative touches in Maya Gurantz's energetic production, and the monochrome towers of Lisa Clark's set are a knockout, but there were also a lot of kinks that still needed working out by opening night. The performances alternate between realism and clownishness in sometimes haphazard ways, and some of Brittany Brown Ceres' choreography appeared under-rehearsed.
Alexandra Creighton's Zasulich is strongest as the young firebrand, or rather as Wilde's romantic conception of her, striking heroic poses after looking around nervously to see if it's okay, but her tentative singing voice shrinks where it should swell. Sean Owens' campy outsize charm is perfect for Wilde. He's unsteady in duets with Creighton, but powerful in his a cappella ballad "How Can I Go Home" and bawdy cabaret ditty about becoming Oscar Wilde.
Orchestrated by Dave Malloy and deftly played by an acoustic quartet of guitar, violin, banjo, and standup bass, the songs are stronger in the music than in Jeffries' lyrics. Versatile ensemble members Tyler Kent as Lenin and Brauer and Levin as crabby peasants sing strongly about how screwed up Russia is, and has always been.
"I have no ambition to be a popular hero, to be crowned with laurels one day and pelted with stones the next," says a roguish character in Wilde's Vera. Although both leads are more compelling in the fire of youth than in bitter decline, in a way that's the point of Vera Wilde. We'll love these glorious rebels for what they were only after we've chewed them up and spit them out for being it.
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