Stage Notes: the Wilde life that wouldn't die | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Stage Notes: the Wilde life that wouldn't die 

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The Importance of Being Earnest has been seen on countless stages, but Oscar Wilde's much more dramatic life has not. To Patrick Trettenero and Jerome Stauduhar that life seemed a show that could almost sell itself. Its wild arc--Wilde went from the closet to jail for sodomy and from there to his grave--was the impetus for their play, Living Up to My Blue China: The Art and Passion of Oscar Wilde.

It has not been an easy tale to get onstage, but Trettenero believes that, given the current plague of right-wing busybodies hacking away at civil liberties, we need to see how little we've progressed since Wilde's time. "Society is hard on people who are fighting their own angels or devils," he says. "Wilde mirrors our own struggle with society's harsh judgments."

The inspiration for Blue China was the late Richard Ellmann's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilde biography--a book Trettenero spent two months reading. It convinced him and his partner Stauduhar that Wilde's riches-to-rags plummet and the hard-earned wisdom he gained would be a sure thing on the right stage. "As long," Trettenero says, "as the play spoke of the man through his work and would make an audience wonder--did this man really live up to the standard of his blue china?" (When Wilde had been teased about his blue china at Oxford, he replied that with life as it was, he found it harder and harder to live up to the standard of his blue china.)

A regular performer on Channel Two's children's show The Magic Door, Trettenero is also a free-lance director who has worked at Center Theater (Laundry and Bourbon) and Zebra Crossing (Bluebeard). Stauduhar, an actor and stage manager, was producer and costume designer for the much-praised Northwestern University Arts Alliance production of Bent in 1984.

The two young theater artists quickly discovered that Blue China would test their dedication to the full. Or as Wilde put it, "Experience is the name that everyone gives to their mistakes."

Trettenero began to adapt Blue China from Wilde's own writing when the Organic Theater's Greenhouse program called for new theater projects. Determined to efface himself, Trettenero wanted to ensure that Wilde would speak for himself throughout the play. He also read every book on Wilde he could find--and there are plenty, he says--and poured it all into the script. This first draft ended up as a series of vignettes drawn from the whole of Wilde's life.

Stauduhar and Trettenero then assembled a team of four actors who rehearsed three times a week for six weeks under Organic's auspices; their suggestions were vital to the script. But the Greenhouse debut, held in late March, was not a success; the Organic judged Blue China "not a play" and decided not to workshop it. Trettenero sums up the setback by saying, "There were no hard feelings on either side."

In fact, buoyed by the encouragement of people who had attended the March reading, he found a new apartment and a new job--and embarked on a rewrite based on the feedback he had received. "My word processor and I were joined at the hip from then on." Aiming for more realism, Trettenero made Wilde's prison ordeal the major event of the plot; Wilde's prison letter, De Profundis, became the play's backbone.

To finance rehearsals, photocopying, and other expenses, the two believers quickly raised about $600 in donations from family and friends. Their loyal actors returned for two more weeks of rehearsals, and a second staged reading was given in late May at the Theatre Building, with Trettenero again serving as director and Stauduhar as the interim producer. Trettenero says this was "a unique opportunity to see your work touch people and to hear them talk about it immediately." Especially vital were the votes of confidence from those who'd also seen the March reading.

Still, none of the six established theaters that sent emissaries to the reading or were approached later would commit to the play. Says Trettenero: "Either they said, 'We don't accept original work outside our own company,' or 'The next two seasons have already been planned and we'll get back to you.'" Unwilling to wait for years, Trettenero and Stauduhar did what so many have done before them--they founded their own company, Cloud 42.

Trettenero's first choice for a venue was Stage Left Theatre, for its liberal politics as much as the intimate layout of the theater. Happily, it was available for a summer slot. With only $20 in Blue China's bank account, and not much more in their own, the would-be producers quickly raised $1,600 as a rental deposit. Starting with loans from their families, Trettenero and Stauduhar raised the rest by passing a very busy hat.

To mount the show, they drew on eight years of theater connections. Friends in established theaters wanted not only to return favors but to help a new ensemble get a start. Two supporters of the arts had been so impressed by the second reading that they offered to host a fund-raiser in their home. On July 17, a second fund-raiser was held at Danny's, the Bucktown bar; it raised almost $1,000.

Cutting corners helped, too. Trettenero designed the show's sound, and Stauduhar created the set and costumes. Stauduhar was delighted that, among other serendipities, Goodwill Industries had just received a large shipment of used Gingiss formal wear perfect for the period; the four men's costumes cost him a total of $25. With a mini-shoestring budget of $4,500, Cloud 42 hopes to prove that less can be more.

Stauduhar sees the whole experience as a matter of paying your dues. He cites a recent interview in which Frank Galati waxed nostalgic over the old days at Steppenwolf: "He was almost mourning the fact that [Steppenwolf] is no longer at the stage we're at now--when a lot of things, including making do with very little, forced them to be creative." Or it may be that Galati was faced with the truth of one of Wilde's great aphorisms: "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

After so many near misses, Living Up to My Blue China opens Saturday, July 29, at 8 PM. Harry Althaus and Tom Blanton play two sides of Oscar's soul (not unlike Oscar's own Dorian Gray), with support from Patricia Acha, Nathan Rankin, and Michael Regier. It runs through September 3 at Stage Left Theatre, 3244 N. Clark, Thursday-Sunday at 8 PM. Tickets are $10; call 829-5861 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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