By Manning Harris
“The world is slowly growing more tolerant and one day men will be ashamed of their barbarous treatment of me, as they are now ashamed of the torturings of the Middle Ages.” Oscar Wilde spoke these words some time after his now legendary 1895 trial for “gross indecency”: the “crime” of loving another man.
The night before I saw Actor’s Express’ superb production of David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss,” running through June 11, I had the pleasure of attending the Atlanta Human Right Campaign’s Gala Dinner; it was an evening where “the love that dare not speak its name” (which Wilde courageously called “beautiful, fine, and noble” in his trial) would not shut up, and unselfish and heroic people were honored for helping to make Oscar Wilde’s prediction come true, 100 years after he said it.
But about “The Judas Kiss,” which is ending the Express’ season on a triumphant note: It is a witty, heartbreaking, powerful, achingly human evening that will leave you full of gratitude that Actor’s Express exists (these are not easy financial times for the arts, as you must know). The level of performance is so high that at times it’s like watching a particularly vital episode of Masterpiece Theatre, including pitch perfect British accents. Director David Crowe has done a masterful job; gradations of power, emotional levels, and subtlety of execution are all seamless.
Act I is called “Deciding to Stay.” Oscar (Express’ Artistic Director Freddie Ashley) is hopelessly smitten with young Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Clifton Guterman) but faces a trial and almost certain conviction unless he flees to France posthaste. He declines: “I have always had a low opinion of what is called ‘action,’” but his reasons are far more complex than he admits. His good friend Robert Ross (Christopher Corporandy, in a passionate Actors’ Express debut) pleads in vain with Oscar to get out while he can. Instead, Wilde leisurely orders a delicious meal from the Maitre d’hotel (John Stephens), the butler (Brody Wellmaker), and the maid (Jillian Fratkin). Everyone else (including the audience) is almost bursting with tension.
Act II, called “Deciding to Leave,” takes place in Naples, after Oscar has spent two soul-corroding years in prison, sentenced to hard labor. He has lost almost everything: his reputation, his children, his money, his health. Bosie arrives on the scene, has a dalliance with a local fisherman (Antonio Pareja), and he and Oscar try to decide what remains for the two of them. Bosie laments that it is he who really has suffered the most. That he is spoiled and self-indulgent cannot be denied. Yet he has truly loved Oscar; always one must remember the times in which they lived.
Nevertheless, novelist Andrew Holleran’s words come to mind: “Isn’t it strange that when we fall in love…it’s inevitably with some perfectly ordinary person who for some reason we cannot define is the magic bearer, the magician, who brings all this to us.” As mentioned, the acting here is exemplary: Freddie Ashley enjoys a personal triumph as Oscar Wilde, witty and moving. Clifton Guterman’s Bosie is crackling and flawless; what a perfect voice he has for the theatre. As mentioned, Christopher Corporandy is a major discovery for this viewer; he illuminates as Robbie, Oscar’s best friend. Mr. Stephens, Mr. Wellmaker, Ms. Fratkin, and Mr. Pareja complete a great ensemble.
Oh, yes, there is nudity in the play; but as Oscar Wilde said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” “The Judas Kiss” is thought-provoking and extremely well performed. Don’t miss.
For tickets and information, visit www.actorsexpress.com.