“Reforms in Russia are very tragic, but they always end in a farce,” says a character in the first play by Oscar Wilde, who, as it turns out, had plenty to say about oppression in Russia. Wilde’s “Vera, or the Nihilists” debuted on a New York stage and, astonishingly, a downtown company claims to be reviving it on a New York stage for the first time in 131 years.
How could more than a century have gone by since New York audiences have seen a full production of the very first stage work by the playwright of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “An Ideal Husband” and “Salome”? Is it that awful?
“Of course we don’t find it awful, or we wouldn’t be producing it,” says Rob Ribar, co-director with Stephen Gribben of “Vera, or the Nihilists,” presented by the “queer company” Femme Fatale Theater with an all-male cast at HERE Arts for five performances from February 12 to 16.
“That said,” Ribar adds, “the play certainly has its flaws.”
Taking place in Czarist Russia in 1800, Wilde’s first play tells the story of Vera, the daughter of the owner of a saloon somewhere between Moscow and the road to Siberia. She discovers that her beloved brother Dimitri, a law student, is among the prisoners being sent to Siberia, having been arrested for having joined those fighting “to give liberty to 30 million people enslaved to one man.” Unable to free him, Vera embarks on revenge, traveling to Moscow to join the Nihilists.
Once there, she and a man name Alexis fall in love. He is handsome and gallant, and supporter of the cause of liberty, but he is secretly also the son of the hated Czar, and the heir to the throne.
When Michael, who loves Vera and is jealous of Alexis, kills the Czar, the Nihilists turn against the new Czar, Alexis – and Vera is tasked to kill him.
The flaws in the script are clear. The 28-year-old Wilde invests his first play with many passionate, fancy and deeply tedious speeches. The playwright made little attempt at historical accuracy; the term “Nihilist” wasn’t coined until more than half a century after the play is supposed to take place. More melodrama than tragedy, it offers the whiff of the unintentionally ludicrous. “Vera certainly has some problems inherent in a first play,” says Ribar – repetitive, talky, overwritten. “We have trimmed the 100 minute show to a tight 80 minutes, which is hopefully sexier and funnier.”
When it premiered in New York in 1883 (because Wilde couldn’t get it produced in London), the critical reception was not all negative. The New York Sun critic called it a masterpiece, the New York Mirror critic said it was “really marvelous.” But the New York Times critic declared “it comes as near failure as an ingenious and able writer can bring it,” and later a Times editorial weighed in that Wilde was “very much of a charlatan and wholly an amateur.” The play closed a week after it opened.
But these critics, Ribar says, “found more faults with the production than the play itself. The play’s leading lady Marie Prescott, who suffered some harsh reviews, held the exclusive rights to play the titular character, which may have resulted in the play not having a revival in the years directly after its premiere.”
To Ribar and the rest of Femme Fatale, “Vera” was a revelation. “When we first read the play, following our all-male production of Wilde’s ‘Salome’ two years ago, we were drawn to its obvious parallels with the then budding Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements. In the time since, the Olympics in Russia and the persecution of people there, queer and otherwise, have allowed us to see this play through the lens of the oppressed LGBT community there which we have highlighted by casting a male actor in drag as Vera.” – Chris Tyler.
“It’s a strong play and an important ground plan for Wilde’s later work,” says Ribar, who points out that Vera, the femme fatale, is a precursor to Salome.
More intriguing is the character of Prince Paul, the Russian Prime Minister, who utters the kind of epigrams that Wilde would later put in such characters as Lady Bracknell. A sampling:
“Indifference is the revenge the world takes on mediocrities.”
“Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”
“I’d sooner lose my best friend than my worst enemy…When a man has no enemy left there must be something mean about him.”