By Hugh Hunter
By tradition, Quintessence shows a children’s classic for the holiday season, having played “Wind in the Willows,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Hansel and Gretel” in previous years. “Wilde Tales” continues that history in a daring way.
Director Jeremy Bloom adapts “The Happy Prince and other Tales” (1888), a collection of fables Oscar Wilde wrote for his children. The five stories in “Wilde Tales” pop up with all the joyous surprise of wild flowers in springtime, yet they are shrouded in the gloom of Wilde’s imprisonment.
The theater is wondrously alive. You enter backstage, passing through an enchanted garden. Amid a forest of potted plants and flowers, you spot sundry items — a pair of silver skates, white wrought iron chairs, baby ducks in a bird bath — tucked away like Christmas presents (set design, Doug Greene).
On stage, in this magical world of colored lights, sound, song and puppetry, plants and animals talk and mingle. Even inanimate objects get to have their say, while the passing of the seasons envelops this larger-than-life world in a mystical aura.
The early tales take you by surprise. Both “The Happy Prince” (Mattie Hawkinson, Vanessa Sterling, Hannah Wolff) and “The Nightingale and the Rose” (Ife Foy, Aneesa Neibauer) are stories about compassion. Like Christ, they bear witness to our need for redemption through acts of self-sacrificial love.
Later stories about human foible put us on more familiar Oscar Wilde turf. In “The Remarkable Rocket” (Terence Gleeson), a firecracker is so carried away with his egotism he brings about his own comical destruction. Here Wilde returns to form, flashing his remarkable wit.
In his director notes, Bloom is right to argue Wilde’s “children’s” tales resonate with adults. He finds “The Selfish Giant” (Ashton Carter) “oddly familiar” to our present political situation, where a nasty man builds a fence to keep playful children out of his garden.
But the Giant does has a change of heart, after all. Not so with Hugh the Miller in “The Devoted Friend”. In this story Hugh (Michael Gamache) refuses to help starving Little Hans (Mattie Hawkinson) get through a bitter winter because such helping would weaken his friend’s character. Sound familiar?
Chestnut Hill composer David Cope creates an original score, sung by the ensemble of eight actors along with a quartet of children from the neighborhood. For lyrics Cope uses poems Wilde wrote during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol for homosexuality.
“Wilde Tales” is a special show, and nowhere is Oscar Wilde more fully present. Whether lovingly self-sacrificial or narrow and vain, all of these lives end in an oblivion that Wilde hopes will also prove magical and envelop them in the joys of childhood and mystery of nature.
Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. Wilde Tales will run through Dec 31. For reservations, call 215-987-4450 or visit quintessencetheatre.org