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Wilde About Vera

October 3, 2008

Chris Jeffries' stimulating, funny and clever musical Vera Wilde juxtaposes two seemingly very different characters from the same era. The quirky, homespun-melodied work, produced by the Berkeley-based company Shotgun Players and featuring a five-piece folk band comprising of upright bass, guitar, banjo, fiddle and drumkit, extrapolates on the lives of Oscar Wilde and Vera Zasulich.

Za who? I hear you ask. The the story of the great Anglo-Irish playwright is well known throughout the world. But Zasulich, despite being dubbed the "mother of terrorism" for taking Russian feudal law into her own hands in the late 1800s, working closely with Lenin during their exile in Switzerland, and playing a fundamental role in bringing about the Russian Revolution, barely registers as a footnote to most people today.

Zasulich and Wilde probably never met, though Wilde was enough inspired by news reports of the Russian radical's stand against the Czarist authorities (she shot a sadistic prison commander for flogging a defenseless, physically-depleted student 50 times for the crime of not removing his hat) to write his first (extremely unsuccessful) play Vera, or The Nihilists (1880) about Zasulich.

Employing a mercurial time structure which moves forwards in time through Zasulich's story and backwards through Wilde's, Jeffries shows us, by the end of the play, just how the reputations of the two figures stand today. Our final impression of Zasulich is of a crippled, old woman, barred from an important Community meeting and already practically forgotten by the people who had heralded her as a hero in her youth. Wilde, meanwhile, is in his prime by the end of the production. As portrayed by the flamboyant Sean Owens (a talented Bay Area actor and playwright who seems to view Wilde as a sort of alter ago) the character exudes confidence at the end of the play. A vision in green velvet, Owens' Wilde stands proudly at the start of his career. He embodies the idea of promise.

The start of the play paints the opposite picture of the two protagonists: Zasulich is at the height of her powers: As brought to life by a willowy, determined Alexandra Creighton, the character is fearless, radical and committed to shaking up the system. An overnight sensation, Zasulich becomes a figurehead of dissent. Wilde, on the other hand, is at his lowest ebb when we first meet him. Broken by his years in Reading Gaol for "gross indecency" and unable to return to England, he dies a pauper in Paris. His shimmering resume as a dramatist is even tarnished by the fact that his most successful plays are performed without his name on the billboard.

At one point in the middle of the play, the two characters' lives physically intersect. Jeffries imagines them meeting in London. Wilde is in rehearsal for -- ironically -- his play A Woman of No Importance, when Zasulich seeks him out ostensibly to interview him for the revolutionary newspaper which she edits in Switzerland. She hopes to inspire the man who wrote a play about her to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon, but instead leaves disappointed without even telling the playwright her name.

Though the opening scenes could use more punch, and the singing could overall be better in tune and more clearly enunciated, director Maya Gurantz delivers a clean, well-balanced staging of the work and coaxes energetic, performances from all five members of the ensemble.

Set against Lisa Clark's claustrophobic backdrop of grey, narrow, precariously inward-leaning Victorian facades, Gurantz, Jeffries and their collaborators evoke a history of heroic outcasts from Galileo to Joan of Arc to pose a provocative question about the nature of revolution: Does change happen at the heart of public life or on the fringes?

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