1897. A Prison in Berkshire, England. Solitary Confinement. Oscar Wilde writes a letter — 80 pages over 80 days — to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
1905. Oscar Wilde has been dead for five years. A former lover, Robbie Ross, has the letter published. He assigns it the title De Profundis (Latin for “From the Depths”). He eliminates certain controversial passages.
1913. The infamous libel suit filed against Arthur Ransome by Lord Alfred Douglas. The unabridged letter is read aloud in court. The 50,000-word text is so boring that the jury rebels and the infuriated judge halts the reading in mid-sentence.
2016. Award-winning director Brian Mertes and a co-conspirator, visual artist Jim Findlay, work with performer Nicole Villamil to devise a piece of experimental theater to communicate the themes of Wilde’s letter.
PlayMakers Repertory Company’s De Profundis is not an adaptation. It is an exploration. Through a variety of media, Villamil, in a solo performance, presents a menagerie of performance-art techniques, and more than a few clichés, to illustrate the letter’s themes of sex, solitude, and suffering.
This production is openly, and visibly, a work-in-progress. The PRC2 series is designed to produce “new work from new angles.” This work is new, and the angle on Wilde’s personal thoughts is certainly an original one; but many of the sequences are not (yet) audience-ready.
Many of this show’s components — projections, interpretive dance, jarring sound effects, destruction of the set, etc. — are right out of the Performance Artist’s Playbook, and audience eye-rolling was practically audible at times.
Audiences are not meant to be comfortable — or entertained, for that matter. But it is rare to hear such vocalized exasperation from a crowd of theatergoers, especially those attending the work of a more transgressive local company.
The parts of this work-in-progress that work are those that show Wilde’s humanity: the humor, the anger, and the fear in action. These are the sparks that set the observers’ minds ablaze. Nothing extinguishes this fire like an extended period of lifeless reading from blue note cards or tedious, bizarrely voiced monologuing. Crucial questions about gender are often overshadowed by these moments.
Nicole Villamil is a skilled performer. Her work is fearless and vulnerable. She subjects her right arm to physical pain to effectively deliver a specific monologue — the piece’s most visceral experiment. The lack of audience interest as we near the end of the show is not from lack of effort on her part. Her commitment to the piece, even when it is pretentious or simply not working — such as in the opening few minutes, during which she attempts to get the audience to engage with her (the rules of the game were not clear) — is impressive to say the least. These moments of interaction in the first few sequences disappears and is sorely missed by the midpoint of the show.
The revised layout of the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, with the audience split in half by the performance space, provides the opportunity to see “how the other half lives,” with spectator observing spectator and a perplexed crowd looking at a mirror image of itself.
The inventive design (under the technical direction of Scott Billik, with lighting and video supervision by Dominic Abbenante and sound engineering by Griffin Gast) is compelling and provides Villamil with ample space to play. Lighting and sound cues are varied, frequent, and precisely called by stage manager Hannah-Jean Farris.
This piece does have a future — and could become something great — but this instrument needs a lot of tuning before it is ready for a command performance.
Fans of experimental theater, and those wishing to see how a new work begins to find its footing, would likely value the experience of seeing De Profundis at PlayMakers Rep; but those who are looking for something remotely traditional will be eyeing the exit door, especially given the staggering heat in the Kenan Theatre.
Oscar Wilde groupies be warned: this is not the man who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. This is a bitter, distressed prisoner pouring out his every thought.
This production lands in the Rated R range for some nudity, strong language, and sensuality.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 11th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/de-profundis/Event?oid=5097635 (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 10th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell and the Jan. 12th review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/01/brian-mertes-and-jim-findlay-stage-a-workshop-production-of-de-profundis-on-jan-11-15-at-playmakers-rep/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/01/playmakers-reps-de-profundis-is-a-work-in-progress-that-might-just-be-your-cup-of-tea/, respectively.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents DE PROFUNDIS, a workshop production co-conceived by director Brian Mertes and designer Jim Findlay and starring Nicole Villamil, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12-14 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15-$48 ($10 students with ID).
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, email@example.com, or http://tickets.playmakersrep.org/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=10381.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4u3FhTa2Hmw.
PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/press/playmakers-repertory-company-presents-a-workshop-production-of-de-profundis/.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.
NOTE 2: There will be a post-show discussion after each performance, with members of the show’s cast and creative team and subject-matter experts.
De Profundis (1897 Oscar Wilde letter from Reading Gaol): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Profundis_(letter) (Wikipedia).
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (Irish playwright, novelist, and poet, 1854-1900): http://www.cmgww.com/historic/wilde/ (official website), http://www.oscarwildesociety.co.uk/ (Oscar Wilde Society), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Wilde (Wikipedia).
Brian Mertes (adapter and director): http://brianmertes.com/ (official website), https://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/brian-mertes/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), and https://www.facebook.com/brian.mertes.96 (Facebook page).
Jim Findlay (designer): http://jimfindlaynyc.com/ (official website) and https://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/jim-findlay/ (PlayMakers Rep bio).
Nicole Villamil (performer): http://www.browntrinity.com/alumni/actor-nicolevillamil/ (Brown University resume), https://www.playmakersrep.org/artists/nicole-villamil/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), and https://www.facebook.com/nicole.davis.73744801 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.