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Prairie Oscar

Photo by Dave Lepori

Touch the Sky: Randall King (left) holds up "Wilde" sheriff (Joe Cole).

'Wilde West' tracks the famous playwright to the American frontier

By Anne Gelhaus

Since it significantly rewrites history, the premise of Wilde West requires a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. Charles Marowitz's script warps time, circumstance and Jesse James' sexuality with such broad strokes that it strains credulity even for a farce, but the San Jose Stage Company never lets its production cross the line into the ridiculous.

Director Peter Kjenaas keeps his 16-member cast tight and focused, even though at least half the ensemble is on stage at all times. The action is so fast-paced and the laughs so well-timed that the audience doesn't really have the opportunity or the desire to question the implausibility of the plot.

It's a character-driven play, anyway, with Oscar Wilde (Howard Swain) at its center. In 1882, Wilde toured America to lecture on the Aesthetic Movement; the tour also provided publicity for Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, a satire of the movement featuring a character based on Wilde.

The play places Wilde in a saloon in Leadville, Colo., where one of his lectures is interrupted by the rather speedy trial of a member of the James gang (Darren Bridgett). Wilde is smitten by the young man's good looks and immediately leaps to his defense, getting him off by playing to the townfolks' sense of divine justice. Swain's dialogue is full of bon mots and innuendoes, both of which he delivers with a smirking civility that would have surely made Wilde proud.

Marowitz's script never directly addresses Wilde's homosexuality, although even someone with no background information about the writer would be able to pick up on it through his leering glances at Bridgett's Jody May and the snide comments from the peanut gallery. Bridgett, meanwhile, nicely conveys his characters uncertainty about the intentions of the man who has saved him from the noose.

Just when it looks like the pair might live happily ever after, Jesse James (Randall King) and Belle Starr (Lisa Recker) ride into town to reclaim Jody May. Starr has a rivalry going not only with James (who "outguns" her in a hilarious dual in which they face off over who's gotten the most publicity) but with Jody for James' affections, which the outlaw expresses in a scene that throws a major curve into the already impossible plot.

Somehow, though, the Stage Company makes this love quadrangle work and keeps the audience believing in it enough to laugh at it. This is no easy task, especially remembering that Wilde was jailed in Great Britain for the "crime" of having a homosexual love affair.

Wilde West plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through March 2 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$25. (408/283-7142)

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From the Mar. 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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