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Blood-lovers show restraint in Dorian Gray

Tale of a young man's descent into evil told with just one geyser of gore


What: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Where: Craigdarroch Castle

When: Continues tonight, tomorrow and Monday, then Wednesday through Halloween

(Tel. 250-592-5323 for tickets)

Rating: 4 (out of five)

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Giggling Iguana director Ian Case has always adored grand guignol -- a school of French theatre specializing in grisly horror.

The Victoria troupe produces a variety of plays, but I suspect Case and his cronies got special thrills out of such shudder-worthy works as The Fall of the House of Usher, I Might be Edgar Allan Poe and Doctor Faustus.

Giggling Iguana's latest scare-fest is a successful 90-minute adaptation of Oscar Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Blood doesn't exactly run down the wood-panelled halls of Craigdarroch Castle, where it's being staged propriately -- right through Halloween night. This is, in some ways, a restrained and tasteful retelling of the 1891 morality tale.

Still, in classic grand guignol fashion, the character of Sybil Vane, who dies of drinking poison, appears as a ghost with a spectacular geyser of gore cascading from her throat. What's up here? Perhaps the acid blasted through her larynx or something.

The Picture of Dorian Gray has inspired many theatrical and film interpretations. Adapting literary works is always a challenge, but this one's a good choice. The novel isn't overly long and the story line is simple.

A handsome young man, Dorian Gray, is painted by his artist friend Basil. Spurred on by a hedonistic pal, Henry, Dorian wishes he might always remain young. He gets his Faustian wish. While his portrait becomes older-looking, he remains as youthful and beautiful as ever. And, as his pleasure-seeking lifestyle becomes increasingly decadent and downright evil, Dorian's portrait becomes depraved and monstrous.

Wisely, Case resists the temptation to show a kitschy version of the scary Dorian portrait. Instead, the audience gazes upon a gauzy canvas, leaving everything to the imagination.

Other subtle touches give the show a sense of style and class. For instance, Dorian (played by Nick Ruskin with commendable restraint) is first seen in a virginal off-white suit, then in a black jacket, then in all-black outfits with devilish blood-red accents.

Paul Terry plays Harry, an epigram-spewing rogue who seems modelled after Wilde himself (as Dorian is reminiscent of Bosie, Wilde's lover). Terry is especially good at playing English characters with a certain charismatic intensity that's not overdone. He does so in this production -- it's very effective.

The entire cast is solid. Christina Patterson is good in two quite different roles, the aforementioned Sybil Vane and Annie the whore. That said, I wasn't sure the adaptation makes a convincing case as to why Dorian rejects Sybil -- ostensibly, her poor acting turns him off. David Radford can always be counted on for a worthwhile turn, and such is the case with his portrayal of Basil.

Playing up the homoerotic undertones among Basil, Dorian and Harry -- which certainly exist in Wilde's tale -- might have added zest to this production. Perhaps Case thought such an approach might cloud the central tale of horror.

Case, by the way, performs well in a small role: the chemist Alan Campbell.

One quibble: I'm not a big fan of tromping up and down the staircases at Craigdarroch Castle. That's apparently part of the "fun" with these shows, which shift (very often) from room to room. No one else seemed to mind on Wednesday night, though.

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