Over the decades, the plays of the witty, flamboyant, irritating and inspiring Oscar Wilde have been huge successes at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Wilde was both prophet and pariah in the late 19th century United Kingdom, but he was particularly chastised on a trip to America in the 1880s.“A sovereign of insufferables,” hissed the caustic columnist, Ambrose Bierce, adding that Wilde was an “impostor.”
Still, Wilde always seems to work. A case in point, an adaptation by Kate Hennig of his “The Happy Prince and Other Tales,” happily renamed “Wilde Tales: Stories for Young and Old,” a quartet of “literate fairy tales” now playing at The Shaw’s mid-village Courthouse Theatre. Christine Brubaker directs these stories that Wilde wrote for his own children and time finds them suitable and apt for ours. And perhaps “The Happy Prince,” "The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant” and “The Remarkable Rocket,” life lessons, might be made mandated viewing for adults.
In the first story, we hear from a statue of a prince that overlooks his town where he sees poverty, despair, even evil, unfolding. He enlists a swallow to remedy these things, removing his jeweled eyes to feed the hungry and a ruby to pay some bills. Not so handsome now, the statue is dismantled by the town fathers. The swallow dies, the prince’s heart splits and falls to the ground. An angel sees to the burial of the bird and the broken heart, “the most precious things in the city.” It's selflessness on display here.
A nightingale is distraught at hearing a young lad has been spurned by a pretty lass because he lacks a rose to give her. Because it is winter, nary a rose can be found. But one will grow if she believes in love and impales herself on a thorn, a fatal wound. For love, she does this at great sacrifice.
A beautiful garden is the pride of “The Selfish Giant,” but he keeps trespassers out by building a wall – this sounds familiar – and causing the land to fall into perpetual winter. The giant relents after a small boy wins his heart and teaches the bellowing one how to share. Years later, the child returns to take the giant to another garden called Paradise. Read what you want into this gentle, kind little parable.
Weaving through these three stories is “The Remarkable Rocket,” a blustering story of a narcissistic firework who is his own hero. (“Wilde Tales” audiences might be asked to shout “What a sensational stick!” on occasion.) He hollers: “I like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures. I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I’m saying.” The rocket is dismayed when he fizzles. I think that we all might know someone like this.
The cast is delightful, the actors each play many parts and work Mike Petersen’s puppets with great skill, little creatures, a moon that stays after sunrise. Marion Day, Emily Lukasik, PJ Prudat, Sanjay Talwar (superb as “The Rocket”), Jonathan Tan and Kelly Wong all seem like close friends at curtain call. Young playgoers appreciate the lack of condescension, adults take to the whimsy and foolishness.
Kate Hennig, director Brubaker and company have done very fine work with these tales. The intimate Courthouse has been used wisely, the nearly hour-long visit speeds by, and the script has been tweaked to include appropriate epigrams and aphorisms lifted from Wilde works such as “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” There are original songs by John Gzowski, with maybe a tune or two short; joy, love, wonder, even loss, could sometimes use some help.
Sorry, Bierce. “Wilde Tales” is hardly the work of an impostor.
3. 5 stars (out of 4)
“Wilde Tales: Stories for Young and Old”
Through Oct. 7 at the Courthouse Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. Curtain time is 11:30 a.m. with a 55-minute performance. Info: shawfest.com.