Opened Sept. 19, 2008 at the Ashby Stage
Sean Owens (center) is Ocar Wilde in Shotgun Players’ production of Vera Wilde, a musical play by Chris Jeffries. Owens is flanked by (from left) Danielle Levin, Edward Brauer and Tyler Kent. Photos by Jessica Palopoli
Shotgun’s revolution in Russian, Irish, musical stripes
Oscar Wilde’s first play, you may be surprised to know, was not some clever, quippy piece of comic fluff. The aspiring young playwright tackled as his subject a young Russian woman named Vera Zasulich, who, in a fit of revolutionary pique, shot the St. Petersburg chief of police in protest of his treatment of her comrades in prison.
Vera freely admitted to the crime and wanted to go on trial to spread the word about why she committed an act of violence and raise awareness about the government’s shady dealings with outspoken citizens and the use of torture in prison.
The strategy worked. Vera’s case received national attention, and the jury acquitted her of the crime she actually committed.
Inspired by the young woman’s revolutionary verve, and holding the opinion that “agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent, (which is) why agitators are so absolutely necessary,” Wilde wrote a play called Vera; or, The Nihilists. Wilde biographer Richard Ellmann describes “Vera” as “a wretched play.”
The play’s London premiere in 1881 was ultimately canceled because a play about the attempted assassination of the Russian Czar (Wilde elevated Vera’s target from police chief to big cheese) was not looked upon favorably in view of two actual assassinations: of Czar Alexander II and of U.S. President Garfield.
Still, Wilde did manage to get the play produced in New York, with a woman named Marie Prescott in the title role. Several newspapers proclaimed the play’s brilliance while the New York Times stated Wilde was “very much of a charlatan and wholly an amateur” and called the play “valueless.”
And so ends the chapter of Vera Zasulich in the life of Oscar Wilde…until now.
In 2002 Chris Jeffries premiered, of all things, a musical about the intersection of Vera Zasulich and Oscar Wilde at Seattle’s Empty Space Theatre called Vera Wilde, and now Shotgun Players is producing this “musical play” for which Jeffries wrote book, music and lyrics.
Jeffries seems hesitant to call Vera Wilde a musical because the word “musical” indicates frivolity, silliness and lack of credibility for serious subject matter. But he shouldn’t be so wary. His musical is intelligent, clever and bold with an appealing score and some standout songs.
The notion of mining the intersection between Vera and Oscar is an intriguing one, though their parallels dissipate after Act 1, which goes to some lengths to depict how their various trials – hers for attempted murder, his for “gross indecency” with young men – were sensational and, in their own ways, revolutionary.
Some confusion arises in director Maya Gurantz’s production as Vera’s timeline proceeds forward (from notoriety to obscurity) and Wilde’s proceeds backward (from post-prison shame and disgrace to talk of the town). Seemingly, when the two intersect the play should find its nexus of power, but that is not the case. The play is at its best during the parallel trial scenes of Act 1 and loses focus in Act 2 as Vera, in exile, becomes a forgotten revolutionary who, if we are to believe Jeffries, was eclipsed by her lover, Lenin, while Wilde emerges as London’s newest Irish toy – push a button on his overstuffed vest and a print-worthy epigram pops out. “I am the future come to laugh at your pretensions,” he says at one point.
Jeffries’ score (beautifully orchestrated by musical director Dave Malloy) is played by a superb quartet: Brendan West on banjo, Andre Nigoghossian on guitar, Hillary Overberg on violin and Simon Hanes on bass. The sound runs from Hot Club jazz to Jesus Christ Superstar anthem with many stops in between.
Two of the show’s best songs are the Russian peasant lament “Midnight in Russia” and a show-stopping glimpse into the disastrous American premiere of Wilde’s “Vera” called “That’s How a Show Should Go” expertly performed by Danielle Levin and Edward Brauer, members of the hard-working, three-person supporting cast (which also includes sweet-voiced Tyler Kent).
Alexandra Creighton as Vera and Sean Owens as Oscar both have moments of connection—especially in their trial scenes — but they struggle with the score, and there were significant pitch problems at Friday’s opening-night performance.
Vera Wilde is a wild idea, and the issues of an oppressive government vilifying the outspoken and taking advantage of terrorist acts to create a fear-driven police state are certainly resonant. This Shotgun production just needs to sing in a stronger voice.
Vera Wilde continues through Oct. 26 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org for information.
BONUS SHOTGUN NEWS: At opening night of Vera Wilde Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley released four of the five plays he’ll be doing in the 2009 season: Mark Jackson’s Faust Part 1 (May-June); Jon Tracy’s adaptation of Animal Farm (August-September in John Hinkel Park); Marcus Gardley’s musical play This World in a Woman’s Hands about the Richmond Shipyard “Rosie the Riveter” workforce (September-October); and Susannah Martin’s production of The Three Penny Opera (December-January 2010).