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BWW Feature: THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY at Firehouse Theatre

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BWW Feature: THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY at Firehouse TheatreIt's experimental in every way. Firehouse Theatre's one-actor production of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is one of just a few live theater productions happening now in the world.

The new adaptation by Billy Christopher Maupin and Shirley Kagan came about when Maupin's bid to adapt Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" as a one-actor play was foiled by the playwright's literary estate. Casting about for another property, Maupin landed on Wilde's public-domain novel about a young man who sells his soul for perpetual youth and beauty. Collaborator Kagan eventually directed the piece, and Maupin stars.

It's miraculously well suited to the moment--just one actor on stage, with a handful of backstage support. Firehouse's producing artistic director Joel Bassin clearly devoted much thought to how such a production could be presented safely while entertainment venues were shut down. The result was a system that permits between two and six audience members at each performance, along with several live-stream opportunities available on YouTube to patrons who sign up in advance.

I pondered how to consume this piece and decided I was not ready to attend in person. I signed up for the first live stream, with which the theater had unexpected technical difficulties. So I signed up for a later stream.

I have not watched a lot of theater since the quarantine began--theater on a screen is so different, for me, than in-person theater that I tend to avoid it. But I did watch "Newsies," which I'd never seen, and I did watch the two Richard Nelson Zoom plays that have come out, along with "Hamilton" and a few other shows. Though all have been wonderful in their way, they have also made me so sad for what I'm not seeing that I haven't been eager to seek out more.

And "Dorian Gray" was similar for me. The adaptation is well done, covering the action of the novel well and presenting the characters in an understandable way. Kagan's direction is good, well paced and clear. And Maupin's performance is assured, as he creates well-delineated characterizations of 14 people, from a 17-year-old actress to a 70-year-old housekeeper. With a variety of voices and accents and physical specificity, Maupin switches quickly and deftly from one to another, always effective and often affecting. The creeping horror of the premise takes hold and takes the audience, however remote, on its emotional journey.

The other production elements are trickier to appreciate via video, though Scott Burton's sound design (including his compositions) is outstanding, moody and atmospheric. Edwin Slipek's scenic design and Leslie Cook-Day's costuming, lit by Matthew R. Dubroff, are hard to take in onscreen--this is perhaps an artifact of the limited camerawork.

But I appreciate deeply the heart it must have taken for all these theater artists to put their talent into this piece. Even with its limitations, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is a triumph of creativity at the moment we need it most.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. and via live stream

Through August 7

Suggested donation $30 - pay what you will

Info: firehousetheatre.org or (804) 355-2001


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From This Author Susan Haubenstock