“Wilde” broken but beautiful

“The Secret Fall” stretches the gravity of taste


The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde

Where: Guthrie Theater
Price: $29+

lurid details of Oscar Wilde’s troubled marriage abound in the Guthrie Theater’s production of “The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde.” Charged with “gross indecency” because of a gay relationship, Wilde’s life offers a well-documented case of gay mistreatment. Wilde (played by Matthew Greer ) stands up to the charges and is sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

The play revolves around his private life and the long-time love triangle between Oscar’s wife, Constance Wilde (Sarah Agnew ), and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Brandon Weinbrenner ). As the curtain rises, Oscar, older and out of prison, is in France, wishing to see his children. Constance refuses, telling Oscar she had to change the family name and move to France to avoid humiliation. At the end, we return to the beginning scene, where Constance recounts a dark secret that Oscar had no knowledge of.

“Once something becomes useful, it ceases being beautiful,” lamented Oscar, referencing Théophile Gautier, another poet of the era who had influenced Wilde.

One-liners like this are famous in Guthrie productions, and it’s easy to pick them out from the rest of the dialogue because the actors want to make sure the audience won’t miss them. Facing the crowd, they move their lips so extravagantly that even a deaf person in the back row could see what they’re saying. Then, at the end of the sentence, there’s a long pause so that the words can sink in, while the audience members who have previously heard the quote can congratulate themselves for being cultured.

Most Guthrie productions are the theatrical equivalent of Steven Spielberg movies: lots of flashy lights, smoke and loud bangs, centered on a well-known theme. “The Secret Fall” is no different; it uses plenty of visual guises – including dancing – to spice up the English prose.

The impressive red room that is the McGuire Proscenium hosts the performance and is a warm, inviting setting that contrasts the dark, depressing mood of the performance.

The music is excellent and the set is immaculately designed, with numerous staircases and entrances from every possible direction. The acting, as always, is superb, and Agnew, as Constance Wilde, has been honing the British accent since her lead in last summer’s Guthrie production of “Major Barbara.” Weinbrenner offers an impressive performance as Oscar’s lover, and this is his second performance at the Guthrie since graduating from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater’s actor training program.

Where the performance goes amiss is its focus on pure translation of the play. Theater that has been done the same way since Shakespeare’s time is all well and good, but this story is something that could easily be adapted to the 21st century.

Take heed of what Oscar says: “Once something becomes useful, it ceases being beautiful,” because seeing “The Secret Fall” follows this logic. The décor, the acting and the music all come together to create an inviting and enjoyable atmosphere, but it is art for art’s sake.