Oscar Wilde Goes Clubbing at Oberon

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday April 17, 2015

If you've caught "The Donkey Show" over the past few years, you've likely come across Mark Mauriello. Or rather he's sped by you on roller skates in a tight, polyester suit with green lipstick, glitter and a winged cap. In the show he plays Doctor Wheelgood, the aide-de-camp (so to speak) to Mr. Oberon, the oily owner of the 1970s nightclub where this immersive, disco-scored take-off of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" takes place. Mauriello makes for a rather imposing figure as he towers over everyone in the room staring down audience members to get out of his way. He also acts as the catalyst for the action, delivering the elixir in a giant spoon that magically transforms the characters, even turning two of them into a donkey.

Curently, though, Mauriello, who is currently a Harvard senior, returns to Oberon for something completely different: a multimedia performance piece called "OSCAR at The Crown and the love that dare not speak its name" that is having its world premiere in this Harvard Square performance venue.

The subject is, of course, Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet/playwright/essayist/novelist/celebrity who provoked Victorian London with his writing and celebrity, then paid a very dear price when his private life became public in a sensational court case; or rather three cases that took place in 1895. In the first Wilde took the Marquess of Queensberry to court in a libel charge after being called a "sondomite" (sic) by the older man on the opening night of "The Importance of Being Earnest." Queensberry was the father of Lord Alfred Douglas., Wilde's lover.

When the relationships with various young London men were revealed in the trial, Wilde was prosecuted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, known today for defining "gross indecency" as homosexual acts. Found guilty, Wilde was publicly humiliated before spending two years in prison. Upon release, he retreated to Paris where he died in poverty in 1900 at the age of 50. While said to be depressed and drinking heavily, he never lost his quick wit. "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go," he quipped to a friend shortly before his death.

It was during the second trial that Wilde under cross-examination used the expression that came to define homosexuality in the 20th century: "the love that dare not speak its name:"

"It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect," he told the court. "It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as 'the love that dare not speak its name,' and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it."

Wilde's eloquent defense likely cost him his case, but it also has made Wilde synonymous with LGBT rights. His persecution under the Gross Indecency Act (which also was used against Alan Turing a half-century later) made Wilde the first modern gay hero, someone whose public humiliation remains a blatant reflection of the homophobic attitudes that pervaded the Victorian world.

EDGE spoke to Mauriello about his interest in Wilde and how his show came about.

EDGE: How would you describe 'OSCAR at The Crown and the love that dare not speak its name?'

Mark Mauriello: 'OSCAR...' is a theatrical experience. It journeys through different genres, media, and modes of storytelling. At times it is a pop spectacular, but it also has moments of really honest intimacy. It's brand new, and so even as we approach opening we're still constantly learning more and more about what the piece is, how it works, and what its potential is. I think it's definitely unlike anything I've experienced or been a part of before - which is immensely challenging, but also incredibly thrilling.

EDGE: You are doing this at Oberon, is it an environmental production?

Mark Mauriello: Yes! When you arrive to the performance (doors open 30 minutes prior to show time) you'll find yourself in a flashy, exciting, and fun club environment. Over the course of the evening, as Oscar's world begins to crumble, the environment goes through some drastic changes. I won't give away too much, but will say that we get taken on a journey that continues to transform and surprise us, ultimately ending in a place we may not have expected to find ourselves.

EDGE: When did you first become aware of Oscar Wilde?

Mark Mauriello: Oscar had always been on my radar through his more commonly-known works - 'The Importance of Being Earnest,' 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.' My sophomore year at Harvard, I took a seminar on his life and works and became transfixed - from his other plays, to his criticism and poetry, and his personal and public history. I found that he was an artist and performer in every aspect of his life and that his story, though over one hundred years old, resonated unbelievably with both our present moment in culture and media and my personal artistic obsessions.

EDGE: What is it about his story that resonates with you that you wanted to do a performance piece about it?

Mark Mauriello: To quote Oscar himself, 'He fascinated everybody worth fascinating.' I found his story to be particularly apt for a performance work because so much of it is about just that, performance - Oscar performing as a cultural icon during his lifetime, the way he performed the 'role' of Oscar Wilde, performance in terms of his sexual identity and the culture of his time forcing that underground.

Once his scandal truly broke out, he, his wife, Constance, his lover, Bosie, and his friends and community were thrust on stage, so to speak. Before his trials, Oscar had always been in control of his performance, but the events that led to his fall stripped him of that control. I'm obsessed with self-performance: in what ways do we create icons of ourselves? Beyond this, however, I wanted so desperately to understand what was really at the core and on the inside of Oscar and the other people in these intensely public moments. It seemed to me that so few people, maybe none, had the opportunity to truly know Wilde. I wanted to really understand him, and to find the ways in which perhaps I, or an audience member, could relate to him, even amongst all of his performance and extravagance.

EDGE: How does Oscar Wilde speak to us today?

Mark Mauriello: If Oscar were alive today, he would fit right in. He would probably have the most followers on Twitter, and his celebrity scandal would be on the cover of every magazine and homepage of every culture news website. All that aside, however, I think his story, on the simplest level, is about the relationships we have with people in our lives, whether romantic or otherwise. It's about the ways in which those relationships can be extremely complex and how, sometimes, people can hurt one another, even when they don't mean to. Ultimately, it's a story about love and forgiveness. These are experiences I think we can all relate to in our own individual ways.

EDGE: If you could ask Oscar Wilde one question, what would that be?

Mark Mauriello: Did you like the show?

EDGE: Wilde's trial was the celebrity trial of his time - was he guilty of believing his celebrity would somehow insulate him from prosecution?

Mark Mauriello: It's hard for me to say that Oscar was 'guilty.' Did he think that he could talk his way through anything? Sure. Up until he took the stand, that had always worked for him. But one of the lesser-known details of Oscar's trial is that, actually, there were three. In the first, he was the Prosecutor - he sued The Marquess of Queensberry, the brutish father of his lover Bosie Douglas, for libel. The reasons for that action are complicated, but I think certainly tied up in his addictive love for Bosie. Once the floodgates were opened, unfortunately they couldn't be stopped.

EDGE: Would you call Wilde's persecution a cautionary tale on the limits of celebrity?

Mark Mauriello: I would call Wilde's persecution a tale of the limits of not only celebrity, but trust, love, and forgiveness, too. I don't know if it's cautionary - I think that's up to our audiences to decide.

EDGE: Have you speculated on why he didn't flee when he had the opportunity?

Mark Mauriello: When almost everyone urged him to flee with his family, leaving his scandal, career, and lover behind, Wilde stayed. Maybe he was stubborn. Maybe he was prideful. Maybe he was coerced. Maybe he was foolish. But maybe he was in love. Or maybe he felt trapped. The answer, of course, is a combination of all that and more.

EDGE: You collaborate with Andrew Barret Cox on the score. How would you describe it?

Mark Mauriello: Andrew's music is electric. Not only does it have a unique contemporary, electronic pop sound, but it is the kind of music that you cannot get out of your head. It explodes into the space and carries you away in ecstasy and fantasy. It is epic, but at the same time has the ability to reveal some really exciting things. Within the piece, the music operates in a unique way, and also changes as the piece transforms, is disrupted, and finally deteriorates.

EDGE: Where would you like to go with this piece?

Mark Mauriello: At the moment, I want to continue to endeavor to figure it out. How can we really sink our teeth into this story and content? How can we share it with an audience? And what is that experience like? In many ways, this first production is an experiment. We're so excited to see how the piece works with an audience, how audiences interact with it, and are affected by it. Our run at OBERON is going to teach us an incredible amount. From there, we'll have to see!

EDGE: Do you have a favorite work by Wilde?

Mark Mauriello: 'De Profundis' - the letter he wrote to Bosie Douglas while in prison. The final movement of OSCAR... is a solo piece adapted from this letter. It is heartbreaking, it is mystifying, and it resonates through the centuries in an unbelievable way.

EDGE: Or a favorite epigram?

Mark Mauriello: 'I think a man should invent his own myth.'

EDGE: Is it possible in Wilde's case to separate his life from his art?

Mark Mauriello: I don't think so - and that's my favorite thing about it.

EDGE: I think you've said this piece is as much about you as it is about Wilde. Could you elaborate?

Mark Mauriello: I won't give away too much, but will say that throughout the course of the evening, our understanding of the experience as a piece of theater will change, including our understanding of the characters and the performers. The whole show is informed by my relationship to Oscar and the aspects of his story that resonate with me and my own experiences. We'll start to bring that out and play with it.

b>"OSCAR at The Crown and the love that dare not speak its name" plays Wednesday, April 15, Thursday, April 16, Friday, April 17 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the Oberon website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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