Wilde Tales

The Wilde, Wilde world of fairy tales

Shaking the Tree's new adaptation brings Oscar Wilde's tales of the heart and soul to life

Ringkamp, Syharath: Wilde and crazy. Photo: Shaking the Tree

Ringkamp, Syharath: Wilde and crazy. Photo: Shaking the Tree

Today is Oscar Wilde’s 159th birthday – he was born October 16, 1854, in Dublin – so here’s a tale for the telling. On Saturday afternoon I was one of 10 people in the seats at the little Shaking the Tree Theatre in Southeast Portland to see “Wilde Tales: The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde.” Even in the little Shaking the Tree studio, where stage and seating sometimes seem to magically meld, it was a surprising sparseness considering that Oscar Wilde is … well, Oscar Wilde. For a lot of people, you’d think, box-office boffo.

All right, it was a sunny weekend day. And I’m told that evening performances have been much closer to packed. Plus, Wilde’s fairy tales aren’t nearly as well-known as “The Importance of Being Earnest” or  “The Picture of Dorian Grayor even, probably, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” But they’re small jewels that dive far more deeply into the mysteries of life than “once upon a time,” laying bare the deep wound of the soul in conflict with itself, a territory that Wilde knew all too well. In the six tales that playwright Karin Magaldi adapts with dramatic skill and appealing sensitivity, strange things happen. Birds fall in love with statues, a nightingale presses its heart fatally into a rose thorn, a selfish giant learns of love, a remarkably conceited rocket fizzles in the fireworks display, and a fisherman smitten by a mermaid cuts away his soul so he can join his love beneath the sea. The tales have wonder and wisdom and the shocking thrill of pain – Wilde is acutely aware of the lingering presence of mortality – and although the production sometimes seems unsure of whether it wants to be for children or adults, the six actors touch some deep and potent nerves. A tear or two may arrive, and it’ll be honestly earned.

Thompson the teller. Shaking the Tree.

Thompson the teller. Shaking the Tree.

I think of these fairy tales as very much adult stories, with layers of wonder so children can absorb them at their own level. They have an incantatory narrative tone with plenty of disturbing ripples: Wilde’s concerned with pleasure and loss, honor and rebellion, the vagrant but piercing ways of the heart (which is the master and slave of love) and the soul (which is essential, but cold without the heart, and capable of frightening things). Magaldi’s script pares the stories smartly, keeping Wilde’s literary tone but pushing the action forward and humanizing what in the stories is often symbolism and metaphor. She bookends the play with the wondrous and chilling tale “The Fisherman and His Soul.” In the stage version, the young man’s soul, after being rejected, sets out to wander the earth alone, eavesdropping on the action of the other tales. The disembodied soul, played with touching sensitivity and a dash of pluck by Beth Thompson, becomes the narrator, as well.

Thompson is one of six deft performers: the others are Chrissy Kelly-Pettit as the singer, Matthew Kerrigan as the priest, Shawna Nordman as the lovelorn witch, Christopher Henry Ringkamp as the fizzled rocket, and Samson Syharath as the fisherman.They move quickly in and out of many roles, carrying the tales forward by suggestion and a few props (including some articulated mechanical birds and a wonderfully twisted, heartbreaking transformation mask of a grotesque dwarf, whose story climaxes in a pitiful variation on the story of Narcissus gazing into the pond). It’s a lean, brisk production, purposely presentational under Samantha Van Der Merwe’s clean and swift direction.

But the production has a perky playfulness that sometimes untooths the tales, softening their shock. As much as I was moved and surprised emotionally by certain moments, I wanted the show to go deeper, deeper, the way the stories do. There are fabulists, like J.K. Rowling and Michael Chabon (whose droll and captivating so-called children’s novel “Summerland” I happen to be rereading, in honor of the baseball playoffs, because baseball plays a crucial role in the story’s magic), who mix comedy and darkness with great skill. Wilde’s tales have their touches of humor, too. But a great fairy tale is a matter of enchantment. It takes you to a place at once familiar and dangerous and transforming, where what you thought you knew becomes something altogether different. When it’s at peak power, you feel a fairy tale not just in the heart, but in the prickles on the skin at the back of your neck.

I’m a fan of stripped-down theater, but “Wilde Tales” may be relying too much on narrative and not enough on the wonderful visual possibilities the tales present. Break up the narrative, slow the thing down, show the magic instead of mainly telling it. Creating visual theater takes money, of course, but these stories, and this script, deserve it. I found myself wondering what someone like the late designer Ric Young might have done with this material and a little bit of budget. This town has good designers, people capable of playing the Aubrey Beardsley role in the telling of the tales. I’d love to see this project take that next step.


“Wilde Tales” runs through November 9; details here.

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