Masque: a form of aristocratic entertainment in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, originally consisting of pantomime and dancing but later including dialogue and song, presented in elaborate productions given by amateur and professional actors.
Shaul Ezer’s play, The Masks of Oscar Wilde, is a series of intertwined vignettes, based on the life of that great English wit, Wilde. The scene opens as a play within a play: a shadow box sits on the centre of the stage, and a sombre Tamara McCarthy narrates the beginning of Wilde’s children’s story, The Happy Prince, about the statue of a prince whose life was carefree and filled with fun, but as a statue it sees the misery of all mankind, and engages a sparrow to help ease some of that pain.
Sean Harris Oliver next enters the stage as an absent-minded academic, lecturing on Wilde’s many facets and on Wilde’s life. McCarthy sits on the side, invisible to the professor, and heckles him to portray Wilde more honestly.
The two actors then enact snippets of Wilde’s life, or read excerpts of his works and letters.
Ezer weaves all the vignettes, from the masks of the play’s title and the sparrow, to the Happy Prince and the professor—as well as Wilde and those in Wilde’s life at key moments—into a relatively seamless tapestry. The result is an engaging and entertaining bit of theatre.
Ezer’s quick dialogue suits the silver-tongued Wilde, and evokes a positive response from the audience. The audience is brought in to participate in the play on occasion, which keeps people on their toes in anticipation in case they are chosen. Ezer also keeps the play moving forward by utilizing three narratives: that of the Happy Prince shedding himself of his gilt, of the academic progressing through his lecture, and of the chronology of Wilde’s life. There is never a lull in the dialogue or action on stage, and the whole work burbles merrily along.
The use of the Happy Prince story as metaphoric device is particularly poignant, as the character of the Prince, particularly the decadent and carefree life of the Prince when still alive, is paralleled to Wilde. Wilde’s early and mid life was auspiciously starred, from his time as a student at Oxford where he whole-heartedly embraced the hedonistic aesthetic of the times, to his throne at the centre of London as a literary giant of the age. Ever the worshipper of art, beauty, and good taste, Wilde became the darling of English society with his flair for those ideals, and his rapier wit.
All good things come to an end, and that end came crashing down, in spectacular fashion, on Wilde. Although married, and though he managed to sire two boys, Wilde was gay, and fell in love with an aristocrat, Alfred Douglas, with whom he had a tempestuous relationship. Eventually, Wilde’s affair came to light in a series of three notorious trials, at the end of which he was convicted of gross indecency, and sent to prison. When he came out of prison, Wilde was humbled and destitute, and died a few years later; a gilded prince left leaden out on a rubbish heap.
McCarthy brings a strong presence to the stage: she is an empathetic narrator, a sarcastic ad-libber to the professor’s tunnel-vision of Wilde, the various nuanced people of Wilde’s life. Perhaps because she opens the play as the narrator of the Happy Prince, and does a superb job doing so, but it seems that McCarthy carries the play through to its end. Oliver takes a bit longer to warm up, but that may have been due to the dialogue being a wee bit stilted in the first quarter. However, Oliver certainly carries off a fine performance as the bumbling professor, as Wilde in those themed-vignettes, and as the secondary narrator to the Happy Prince.
When the final chapter of the Happy Prince was read out: when God chooses the leaden heart of the statue and the broken body of the sparrow as the most precious things in the city, and when those words closed the play, I had goose bumps.
An entertainment worthy of the ersatz aristocrat, The Masks of Oscar Wilde pays a successful homage to Wilde’s life and works, capturing Wilde’s literary and verbal brilliance, his reflections of Victorian society, and of course, his completely unique and engaging life.
Catch the next shows at Fringe on:
Friday, Sept. 12, 10:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 14, 6:45 p.m.