Theater Review - The Judas Kiss is Wilde at heart

Actor's Express performance captures the tragedy of one of history's wittiest men

Actor's Express's deeply felt historical drama The Judas Kiss suggests that a tastefully appointed London hotel room served as Oscar Wilde's personal Gethsemane. The title signals playwright David Hare's analogy between the great Irish writer's life and one of the most poignant episodes of the New Testament. At the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus agonized over fleeing his imminent arrest but ultimately chose to face his accusers and probable execution.

On April 5 of 1895, Wilde (Freddie Ashley) paid a visit to the Cadogan Hotel while his friends prepared him a swift exit from England. Wilde's libel suit against the Marquis of Queensbury, who called the Irish dramatist a "posing sodomite," had just collapsed and Wilde faced prosecution for "gross indecency," i.e., being gay. The Judas Kiss' soaring, suspenseful first act imagines Wilde's hotel stint as he weighs the options of fleeing to exile or staying behind to quixotically challenge England's morality.

Wilde's sensible friend Robbie Ross (Christopher Corporandy) finds the decision a no-brainer, given the likelihood of a hard-labor jail sentence if he loses a trial, and the loss of his reputation even if he wins. Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas (Clifton Guterman), encourages him to stay and fight. Bosie's hostility toward his father, the Marquis of Queensbury, inspired Wilde's doomed lawsuit, but the young aristocrat is so spoiled and self-absorbed, he forever sees himself as the real victim, no matter how much Wilde suffers. Guterman nails Bosie's imperious petulance, but fails to reveal what Wilde saw in the younger man.

Wilde looms as an iconic literary figure as both an impeccable wit and a gay martyr before the term even existed. Ashley gives a life-sized interpretation of Wilde that doesn't convey the charisma the Victorian celebrity undoubtedly possessed. But Ashley crafts a profoundly sympathetic portrait of the writer, who specialized in ironic humor but was also a gentleman with scarcely a malicious bone in his body. As Actor's Express's artistic director, Ashley may have been a convenient casting choice, but it's difficult to think of another Atlanta actor who could have so movingly conveyed the magnitude of Wilde's loss.

The production's real discovery is Corporandy, who gives a subtly heartbroken performance as mild-mannered Ross. In the play's most satisfying moments, he explodes with rage over Wilde's tolerance of Bosie's petty, destructive behavior.

Directed by David Crowe, The Judas Kiss's first act constructs a loose subplot involving the hotel's servants, two of whom we catch doing the Victorian-era nasty when the play begins. Apart from the titillation factor of the play's ample nudity, the scene conveys how raw carnality lurks just under the veneer of 19th-century propriety. Plus, as the staff prepares a gourmet meal, we appreciate the contrast between the legal and press frenzy outside the room and Wilde's wish to create an oasis of calm and refinement, if only for an instant. It's a shame Actor's Express' set is so plain.

Act Two finds Wilde and Bosie reunited in Naples two and a half years later, but their circumstances have soured beyond repair. The Judas Kiss' second act lacks the first's ticking-clock urgency and confines the sickly Wilde to a chair for nearly the entire time. The play's latter half becomes as emotionally compelling as the first only when Wilde and Bosie finally have a long-simmering confrontation.

Actor's Express largely lives up to the mighty theatrical standard set by Wilde and Hare (recently nominated for an Academy Award for The Reader), and conveys the tragic dimension of what today would be merely a tabloid-fueled scandal. Throughout the play, Wilde discovers the hard way the truth of his own epigram: "The only thing in the world worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

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