“To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.” This line, which becomes Dorian Gray’s credo, appears at one point on the lit screen behind the stage as we watch his descent into aesthetic hedonism. It is the essence of Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray,” in which the title character’s obsession with sensual pleasure leads to death and despair for those around him while precipitating his own untimely end. But transforming Wilde’s classic into a wordless puppet show — as creator, director and actor Adam Rigg DRA ’13 does in this weekend’s production at the Yale Cabaret — comes with risk, and despite its technical brilliance, the play sometimes feels too fractured to follow.
The play begins with a blindfolded artist (Rigg) drawing the portrait of a puppet figure. As the artist continues to draw, two members of the cast begin to move the puppet, who we come to understand to be Dorian Gray. From there, the production becomes a masterful puppet show, with choice lines from Wilde’s play illuminated by an overhead projector on the screen behind the action. Early on, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton (also a puppet — they’re all puppets), an aristocrat who introduces him to a life devoted purely to the pursuit of beauty and pleasure.
Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful scenes of the play are those that feature Sybil Vane, a talented stage performer upon whom Dorian, taken by her devotion to art, initially focuses his desire. As Dorian watches with puppetic rapture, Rigg manipulates Sybil to dance energetically, her strings belying that she is but a puppet in Dorian’s masquerade. But once Sybil falls in love with Dorian, she loses her passion for performance and therefore his love, and the puppet moves in limp, uninspired gestures. It is a theatrical death, followed soon by an actual one as she hangs herself. Throughout, Dorian sits watching, motionless, a cool observer of the havoc he has wreaked.
In these scenes, the heartbreakingly eerie score complements Sybil’s demise, the characters are easily identifiable, and the action is plain and clear. But in others, the lines printed on the overhead projector are too often blocked by members of the cast. In addition, the puppeteers sometimes obscure the actions of the puppets with their own movements, making the play difficult to follow. Partly because the play is wordless and partly because the supporting-character puppets all look relatively similar, the plot at times feels disjointed, especially for those unfamiliar with Wilde’s novel.
In the play’s closing scene, after — spoiler alert! — everyone has died, Dorian is placed in a picture frame on a side wall, a reminder that the play is fundamentally about a man who tried to become a work of art. And as a technical work of art, the play succeeds. The set, a dark room with dim hanging lights, successfully evokes the Victorian era in which “Gray” is set. The slow, deliberate manipulation of the puppets fits artfully with the haunting score. Yet the production should be more than its set and design, and it almost is. There are particularly creative touches, such as the death of the storyteller (the one arranging the lines on the overhead projector) in the latter half of the play. This adds another layer to the play — just as Dorian has transcended social and ethical constraints, so too has the story itself escaped from its formal ones.
Yet more often than not, the play seems lost in its artistic technicalities, sacrificing plot for craft. From a play that is designed to make us question the nature of art, morality and the relationship between the two, viewers can — and should — expect more.