A deep strain of melancholy pervades
, a mournful look at love, death, self-sacrifice, and the wages of selfishness.
Cleverly adapted from Oscar Wilde's fairy tales by Jeremy Bloom, who also directs, this stylish Quintessence Theatre Group production has whimsical grace notes. Martina Plag's puppets, a wonderfully fanciful garden set by installation artist Doug Greene, Daniel Ison's sound design, and a delightful children's chorus situate us in a surreal world where nature and human nature intersect in magical ways.
But while its set is adorned with tinsel and Christmas greenery, Wilde Tales is not a typical holiday romp. Better known as a playwright, wit, and victim of Victorian homophobia, Wilde (1854-1900) wrote the original stories for his own two children. And the Quintessence production is billed as a family show ("not only for children, but for all childlike people").
But it seemed too somber, complex, and long - with two acts of 50 minutes each and a 10-minute intermission - for the sometimes restless tots at Saturday's opening-night performance. On the other hand, its themes and language are sophisticated enough to engage adults, who may recognize both its borrowings and upending of Victorian pieties.
Wilde Tales is a compendium of five stories, none with conventional happy endings. The strong opening piece, "The Happy Prince," with images of chilled, starving children and their overworked parents, has Dickensian undertones.
Its titular prince (Mattie Hawkinson), living behind palace walls, was oblivious to his people's misery during his lifetime. Now, as a sentient gold-plated, jewel-encrusted statue, he looks out over his realm, and wants to ease the suffering he sees. Aiding in his charitable mission is a besotted swallow (Vanessa Sterling), who interrupts a flight to warmer climes with fatal results.
The satirical bite of Wilde's late-Victorian comedies of manners is most recognizable in the second act opener, "The Devoted Friend." Michael Gamache's pompously self-righteous rendition of Hugh the Miller - whose idea of friendship is all talk and no action - is one of the show's highlights. In this story within a story, the miller takes repeated advantage of the self-abnegating Little Hans (Hawkinson). Hans longs only to cultivate his garden and please his friend - and finds he cannot do both.
"The Devoted Friend" demonstrates that both selfishness and selflessness can lead to disaster. But "The Selfish Giant" shows that selfishness can be surmounted. The ogre (Ashton Carter), hostile to the children frequenting his garden, walls it off - and finds himself condemned to perpetual winter. When they crawl back in and the garden blooms, he is ready to welcome the intrusion. "No more walls," he declares, to knowing audience laughter.
But the comedy here is mostly dark. David Cope's songs, with (not always intelligibly sung) lyrics drawn from Wilde's gloomy prison writings, sound like hymns or dirges. And Jay Ryan's lighting design powerfully accents the tale of "The Remarkable Rocket," in which the boastful but soggy rocket's lack of self-knowledge proves bitterly ironic.
Through Dec. 31, presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave.