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Wilde Man Blues

Stewart Oksenhorn

He was a man of great convictions and startling contradictions, filled with caustic wit and pointed critiques. He was a hero and a villain, both celebrated by society and imprisoned by it. He lived large and died broke.

And his observations on the world and its inhabitants, made in the second half of the 19th century, have proved to be remarkably prescient and pertinent to the late 20th century.

Little wonder, then, that Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde is still a hot item 99 years after his death. And it is all those things about Oscar Wilde that make him an ideal character to bring to life onstage.

“He’s a fascinating man, so fucking clever,” said stage actor Ken Ruta. “He cuts through all the whipped cream and gets right to the heart of things. I think he lived the way he wanted, with no regrets, and that’s pretty remarkable.”

Ruta has, over the last two years, had the opportunity to get a deep insight into the Dublin-born lecturer and playwright, celebrity and criminal that was Oscar Wilde. Since 1997, Ruta has portrayed Wilde in the one-man play “Oscar Wilde: Diversions and Delights.” The San Francisco-based Ruta first conjured up Wilde for a 16-week run at the actor’s 600-seat hometown theater The Stage Door; later he fleshed out Wilde in extended engagements in Boston and Orange County, Calif.

Playwright John Gay originally wrote the piece as a one-man vehicle for Vincent Price, who portrayed Wilde for two years in the ’70s.

Now Ruta brings Wilde back to life for a rare one-night appearance in Aspen. “Oscar Wilde: Diversions and Delights” will make its debut tonight, Friday, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.

Wilde has become big news in the region of late. Glenwood Springs’ C.M.C. Theatre’s production of Wilde’s most famous play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” was recently chosen as one of four showcase productions for this year’s Rocky Mountain Theater Association’s Festivation. C.M.C. Theatre did a one-night performance of the comedy last night at the Glenwood Springs High School auditorium. Also this week, the Denver Center Theatre Company opened its production of the courtroom drama “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” set for six-week run at Denver’s Ricketson Theatre.

Wilde’s enduring popularity is a natural in the eyes of Ruta. Wilde has often been called the first modern celebrity, one who used the media to his own purposes and own fame.

“The stuff he said is just as right today, and so clever,” said Ruta, who portrays Wilde in his latter days, two years after his imprisonment for sodomy and one year before his death in 1900. “‘Diversions and Delights’ seems to have so much resonance with what’s going on in Washington now. People asked me if I had added the lines, but it’s just what Oscar said.

“The stuff he said about the press is so relevant today. I can’t imagine what he would have thought about the media today. His thoughts about the press are pretty scathing.”

To Ruta, not only were Wilde’s observations so witty and accurate, but they came from every perspective. It is Wilde’s contradictions that make him such a rich character. He was known – and imprisoned – for his homosexual behavior, but Wilde was also married and had two children; his long-time estrangement from his family was a great cause of anguish for him. He also has a passionate affair with actress Lillie Langtry, considered one of the great beauties of her day.

His practices may have seemed amoral – among his favorite aphorisms was “I promise not to lead you into the paths of virtue” – but Wilde was deeply religious, and became a practicing Catholic as an adult. Amazingly, the young Wilde was, according to Ruta, an enormous hit in small Western towns – including Leadville – when he gave a lectures on the ethics of art and on interior decoration.

He was a militant Irishman and harshly critical of the English, but he lived much of his life in London and was most popular outside of the U.K. – in Germany, France and the States.

“He looked at things from every angle, so many of the things he said were contradictory,” said the 65-year-old Ruta, who has won consistent acclaim for his portrayal of Wilde. “But he said that was how you stay young. When you make up your mind, you become rigid.

“He couldn’t stop talking and that’s what got him in such trouble. At his trials, he was so contradictory and talkative, and that’s what fouled him up.”

Playwright Gay’s portrayal of Wilde has been praised for its ability to fuse all of Wilde’s sides, his abundant humor and his late-in-life pain and despair. The play is set in a Parisian theater that Wilde had rented to deliver a lecture. Much of the play’s content is rich with Wilde’s humor, but there is a huge air of the character’s anguished situation: The theater is drab and filled with the sound of water leaking; Wilde is nervous and shaky in demeanor.

“It’s the end,” said Ruta, a Chicago native and graduate of the defunct Goodman Theatre at the Art Institute of Chicago, who has made his career exclusively onstage. “He was into the absinthe, which was bad, like a narcotic. And he wasn’t a pleasant person to view, because his teeth were rotten. He was broke, his wife had died, he couldn’t see his children.

“But the man never stopped laughing at himself. Thank God. He never lost the sense of humor and wit. Oscar, he had to try everything.”


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