THE SECRET FALL OF CONSTANCE WILDE
at the Guthrie Theater through July 11;
Director Marcela Lorca's production of Thomas Kilroy's The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde doesn't lack style. Murky ambient music piped into the Guthrie's proscenium stage creates an eerily timeless sensation before the curtain rises, and when it does, Tony Fanning's huge set evokes the ugly grandeur of Victorian Britain, all dirty brick and doorways leading off to (one imagines) unwelcome possibilities. The plot centers on Constance (Sarah Agnew), long-suffering wife to Oscar Wilde (Matthew Grier) and the mother of his two children. In the opening scene the pair, estranged after Wilde's prison stint, meet up with a distinct emotional chill in the air. Constance refuses to allow the broken-down wordsmith to see his sons, demanding instead that the couple relive their past to see what brought them to the end of the line. Much of the trouble involves Lord Alfred Douglas (Brandon Weinbrenner), Oscar's longtime lover, first introduced facing away from us, nude, while Wilde extols the object of his passion's androgynous charms. It's a complicated, sensitive portrait, from Oscar's very real young love for Constance, to Lord Alfred's profligate ways with the Wilde family's money, to the moment of Oscar's sentencing (Grier dons a judge's wig and assails Oscar's stand-in, a tiny puppet). While the set is sweeping and grand, much of the action inexplicably takes place in a couple of cramped locales at the foot of the stage, and four characters, each billed as "Puppeteer," act as stagehands dressed all in black, frequently indulging in brief choreographed dance numbers that also qualify as head-scratchers. Agnew and Grier are frequently brilliant, with Constance haunted by a bleak secret past and vacillating between adoring Oscar and loathing him, and Oscar in thrall to what, for him, are the lofty passions of his life (Grier captures Wilde's adoring wonder for his two loves with wrenching honesty). Ultimately, these performances break through the conceptual sludge of the production itself, which seems almost designed to emotionally distance itself from the audience. It's big, it's busy, it doesn't really work, yet there are moments of beauty here. The question is whether it's worth all the work required to get to them.