Book, Music and Lyrics by Chris Jeffries
Directed by Allison Narver
The Empty Space Theatre
3509 Freemont Ave N. Seattle, WA 98103 / (206) 547-7500

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

"Vera Wilde" is a weird little musical based on the parallel lives and possible influence of an obscure Russian pre-revolutionary woman named Vera Zasulich on Oscar Wilde. Playwright and Composer Chris Jeffries would like this odd historical footnote to signify great things, but in spite of some committed performances and an appealing score, it remains a stretch. I think this show is actually better than this production, but there are still some pretty big problems in making the two figures connect in purposeful ways, in having their marginal story carry a larger meaning, and in bringing us some understanding of Wilde that we don't already have.

Oscar Wilde is a great character, and really needs to be the object of this story. But similarity and historical co-existance is not a dramatic connection. If we accept that they were both committed to revolutionary change, in her case political and social, and in his theatrical and social, then there is a connection. But it is much more conceptual than actual. The actual physical interaction, the meetings between the two, were minimal.

Wilde's first major play, "Vera" was about Zasulich, and that is their primary connection. It was a disaster. An amusing number in the second act, "That's How A Show Should Go" informs us as to how commercial compromise and artistic incompetence probably destroyed it, but in this show Wilde essentially buries the experience. As a result, we don't really understand what he hoped it would be, why her story mattered to him, or what his failure meant to him personally and artistically.

Vera Zasulich (Julie Rawley) gets a good deal of time and development in this show. Her first act number "Midnight In Russia" is both funny and engaging. Her enthusiasm is convincing. Yet, we never really see what it all had to do with Wilde directly, or why knowing more about her can lead us to a better understanding of him. We end up knowing more than we really want to about Vera, and less than we really want to about Oscar. What holds us is interesting, highly theatrical music, well-crafted lyrics and a general energy and momentum that keeps everything moving and entertaining enough that we don't really notice what isn't happening.

Nick Garrison is a charismatic, talented performer with an engaging combination of personal confidence and vulnerability. He just isn't Oscar Wilde, and especially not a self-doubting, psychologically embattled Oscar Wilde. He has plenty of the public personality, the fabulous style and quick wit. What he lacks is the literary brilliance, the imposing learning and heavyweight intelligence of a working genius. Garrison sings beautifully, and he holds the stage, but neither the text nor the direction give him the dimension or subtlety that was called for.

Julie Rawley, as Vera, on the other hand, is all about telling us who she was and why she's in our face. Historically, her great achievements were shooting the Chief of Police of St. Petersburg in the leg, writing to Karl Marx and being written about by Wilde. Then she became unimportant. Nonetheless, this show would have us believe she was a great force behind the scenes of revolution. Rawley is emphatic and plenty show-bizzy, but there's precious little pathos in her relegation to the dustbin of history she seems so well suited for.

So the story doesn't really work for me, and neither do the two central performances, and I still enjoyed the evening. The songs, with hints of Kurt Weill mixed in with Kander and Ebb and a lot of post "Les Miz" expansiveness are fun and well done. The supporting cast is hard working and competent. Director Allison Narver has a solid grasp on what the material is and how best to present it. The idea itself is intriguing. It's just all too peripheral to convince me that it's relevant or meaningful.

This show seems especially well suited to Seattle's Freemont neighborhood, where a 30 foot statue of Lenin graces the sidewalks beside the latte shops and vegan cafes. The referential Brechtian staging feels almost traditional here. Having been a part of the founding of the great Communist Revolution which lead to the destruction of an entire society and the suffering of countless millions seems particularly unheroic to me. Oscar Wilde was a great playwright, and his own revolution against discrimination toward homosexuals was both brave and admirable. His story is dramatic and inherently theatrical. But not here. And not in tandem with Vera Zasulich. After all the amusement and general boisterous fuss, I left the theatre feeling very much like the woman behind me, whom I overheard saying, "I kind of liked it. But I'm not sure why."

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