By May S. Ruiz
‘A Picture of Dorian Gray,’ a play adapted from Oscar Wilde’s novella ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ goes on stage from September 23 to November 16 at A Noise Within in Pasadena. Adapted and directed by Boston Court Pasadena’s Co-Artistic Director, Michael Michetti, its three main characters are Colin Bates as Dorian Gray, Frederick Stuart as Lord Henry Wotton, and Amin El Gamal as Basil Hallward.
Wilde’s Dorian Gray is so entranced by the beauty of his own portrait that he sells his soul to preserve his youth and pays a price. Michetti’s adaptation, first produced at Boston Court Pasadena in 2006, explores the idolization of beauty and youth in an intimate, psychological journey. Avoiding the Gothic horror approach to the tale altogether, it follows instead the consequences of Dorian’s hedonistic lifestyle.
Explains Michetti of the remount, “When I did ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ 12 years ago at Boston Court, it was really successful and I was very proud of it. But I really didn’t think I was done with it and I thought this would be an opportunity to come back to it.
“The theatre space and timing are different. It’s a new collaboration with a whole new set of actors, with specific experiences and talents they bring to the production. However, the political and thematic content we’re dealing with now are the same things I was interested in exploring 12 years ago. That said, several things have transpired since – for one, gays have achieved marriage equality. So this play is thematically timely to me.
“The script has basically the same approach and ideas; I’ve added some things but not significant ones. Part of what this adaptation is embracing in the Oscar Wilde original is Dorian’s sexual orientation, an aspect many adaptations have erased. In fact, there wasn’t any hint of it in the 1945 film version. That was one of the things that was important for me to restore.”
“A lot of the people who read the novella thought of it as a Gothic horror story,” adds Michetti. “However, I think that was the least interesting part of the story. There’s obviously a supernatural and dark element to it but, for me, Wilde wrote a very psychologically truthful tale about what it was like to pursue pleasure without regard to the consequences. Because Dorian has great privilege of wealthy and beauty, it’s easier for him to get the things he wants in life. He spends a great part of his life causing damage to people.
“Following its dramaturgy, this is a cautionary tale. At the end of the novel, Dorian grasps that the toll of leading such hedonistic life was too great and he decides, too late, to make a change. But he definitely is realizing the consequences of his past behavior, is regretting it, and is atoning for it. It’s a reminder that we should stop to consider the people around us and the contributions we’re making to humankind.”
“Here’s an interesting point – pursuit of pleasure, acquisition of beautiful things, appreciation of beauty – those were components of the aestheticism in the late 1870s,” Michetti expounds. “Aestheticism values art more than social and political themes: art for art’s sake. Oscar Wilde was considered one of the most prominent proponents of it. He was, at the time, a big celebrity who embraced it and became the public face for the movement.
“The aesthetic movement is a hedonistic approach to life. So while the novel’s protagonist is pursing these things, Oscar Wilde is saying there’s a price to pay for following these theories to their logical end.”
Oscar Wilde once said that ‘Dorian Gray’s’ three central characters are all aspects of himself: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.”
Michetti finds Wilde’s description fascinating. “There is something thought-provoking about the three characters as a triumvirate. Within that, Harry is the proponent of the movement and he stands by it to the end. He says we can’t change, we are who we are; and he doesn’t want Dorian to change because he believes aestheticism is worth pursing at whatever cost. Meanwhile, Basil is destroyed in the course of the play. And Dorian is the one who develops a conscience and decides to change.
“There are three actors playing the three different characters who are all aspects of Oscar Wilde. There’s that remarkable bond they carry with them during all that time. They are people who care very much for one another.
“When the play begins Harry and Basil have been long-time friends, they were in school together. Basil meets and falls for Dorian and introduces him to Harry – it’s a triangle with connections as well as conflicts. As soon as Harry comes into Dorian’s life, Basil becomes a third wheel. We have talked a lot with the three actors about the fact that there are reflecting and mirroring between them, yet the characteristics of the actors and the characters are very distinctive.
“Basil and Dorian are contrasts in a lot of ways. Dramaturgically and psychologically, Basil is the embodiment of Dorian’s conscience – he’s the one who wants Dorian to behave righteously, to take responsibility for his actions, and to lead an honest and fulfilling life. Dorian reaches a point of being so fearful of the consequences that he avoids Basil and their friendship suffers for it. Ultimately, I think, the reason for Dorian’s big conversion is the recognition that killing Basil is a big loss and he has a lot of guilt over that. He comes to an appreciation for what Basil wants for him to see in the world.”
Michetti continues, “The second metaphor in the story is Dorian’s portrait which is both aging and taking on the physical manifestation of his sins so that he isn’t affected. I find that symbolism a little too simple because even though his appearance isn’t affected, Dorian has guilt and fear beneath. But there’s something addictive about his continuing pursuit of pleasure, beauty, and experiences. It’s almost that of an addict getting a high for a while, then he crashes, and he begins again. That is very much the cycle that Dorian is deeply in.”
This adaptation of ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ does not show the portrait at all, which could be a tough sell to the audience who can’t actually see it.
“The reason I decided not to have the picture is that, in most adaptations, when the portrait is shown and the effect it’s had on it, the whole revelation is a little cheesy to me,” rationalizes Michetti. “I never got convinced because it should be terrifying and it always fell short of what I had imagined. And then, too, how grotesque could you make it so we could understand his moral decay and give it the right impact?
“Previous adaptations emphasized the horror aspects instead of the psychological feature. There is undeniably a supernatural element to it; you can’t tell the story without that. However, I didn’t really want to be focusing on that but on the humanity of it. I think the audience will hear the story in a different way because of how we’re framing it. And focusing on the psychological instead of the supernatural is what makes that possible. I hope that our audiences understand that kind of storytelling and find it dynamic and compelling.”
Michetti says further, “The story has universal themes. I think we are all guilty of the things that Dorian does – we all want to stay young, we all feel that sense of loss when we begin to age, we all seek pleasure to try to numb the feelings of fear or failure. While Dorian is an antihero, we can relate to him and we see ourselves reflected in him. We may not go to the extreme that he does, but we comprehend some of the temptations he had. I would like our audience to treat it as an admonition to make different choices because we see how badly Dorian’s life ends.
“At the same time, I hope that, in the adaptation of the play and the depiction of the character, we find him appealing and relatable before we find his behavior repellent. While Dorian doesn’t begin as the shining example of magnanimity, he is a very relatable person before he begins his decline.
“Finally, I would like people, who feel they know the story, to be taken aback – to think they heard it in a new way. I would like to make them recognize other aspects of it they had not previously been conscious of, or didn’t know were there. For me it all comes back to the appreciation of Wilde and how inspired this novel is, how deeply he understands humanity. That we can use his words and tell the story that feels fresh and relevant in the 21st century is surprising for a work that’s 125 years old.”
Basil is played by Amin El Gamal, whom Michetti had not previously worked with. He states, “Amin has auditioned for me before and I’ve seen his work as a fan. He was definitely the first person I thought of.”
El Gamal confesses, “I never read the book in school and didn’t come across it until after college. I have never been in a production of Dorian Gray before but I know the trope about the picture that ages.
“It was very insightful of Michael to have thought of me in the role of Basil. He’s a character I think I relate to strongly, although I’ve never seen productions where the characteristics brought out in this adaptation were showcased. I was really excited to be approached for a role where I can share my existential qualities, which I was surprised that Michael has perceived.
“When he sent the script to me, I was astonished and, quite frankly, I felt exposed. But it has also been a delight because my goal as a person of color is not to play my ethnicity but to use my resources and my qualities as a person as the basis for my art. I felt that Michael acknowledged that. I was disappointed that I couldn’t do it because the script came too late – I was already committed to another project.”
Interjects Michetti, “I cast another actor but he dropped out. So I approached Amin again and, by that time, his project had fallen apart. So this feels like fate.”
“As excited as I was to play this character, I was also afraid of what that psyche would unearth for me,” El Gamal continues. “Fortunately, the process has been fruitful. I really feel that an actor’s main tool is his life experience, but there are times when I have to use my imagination. This play really required that creativity.
“I’m very sensitive to the fact that people can be like Basil or Harry. I can certainly relate to both Harry’s wanting to pursue his goals with enthusiasm in the same way that I appreciate Basil’s sense of morality. But there has to be a balance to not be overburdened with the morals and live life to the fullest.”
“Michael challenged me to find more complexity in the characters,” discloses El Gamal. “He didn’t want us to depict Basil and Harry as the angel and the devil on Dorian’s shoulder. That the evil and the good are not too far apart, there’s a grey area where a person can be both. Basil certainly isn’t perfect. Both characters had an important role in Dorian’s life – if it wasn’t for Basil, he wouldn’t have met Harry.”
“Basil is very passive in the beginning of the story,” says El Gamal of his character. “When Dorian starts pursuing worldly pleasures, he pulls away – he leaves the country and isn’t a part of Dorian’s life for a while. He goes through a drought in his art after Dorian basically abandoned their relationship. He might have resorted to drug and substance abuse, he’s alone and lonely. Although he still has a deep love for Dorian and when he sees the deterioration of the portrait, he stages an intervention.
“But through it all, he’s not a victim. His character arc is hopeful – he’s planning on opening a studio in Paris where he would create his next masterpiece – despite its sad ending. It was a productive life cut short. I hope I am able to convey everything that is going on with Basil.”
“Oscar Wilde anticipated homosexuality as an identity, the idea of two men being in love,” marvels El Gamal. “Basil embodies that identity at a time when that wasn’t recognized.”
In his depiction of Basil, El Gamal wants the audience to leave the theatre with something to reflect on. “I think in today’s social media and selfie-obsessed culture, people can feel disposable and we can forget to be respectful and communicative. I hope Basil, as a sort of advocate for kindness and basic human decency, reminds audiences to take a little better care of themselves and each other.”
Would that El Gamal’s wish is realized and the moral Michetti advances in ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ is heeded to make us a deliberate and thoughtful society.