‘Dorian Gray’ paints an unsettling picture

Kevin Aoussou and Alexandria White don’t see eye to eye in Shakespeare Carolina’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Kevin Aoussou and Alexandria White don’t see eye to eye in Shakespeare Carolina’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” David Hensley

Does the idea of selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for a more sinister but fulfilling lifestyle ever get old? As long as there are vain, naive people who want nothing less than total immersion into their own selfish worlds, this idea will be immortal – much like the timeless face and chiseled physique of the main character in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” presented by Shakespeare Carolina.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa updated this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel. Devious behavior (including brutal murders and sexual trysts) makes Dorian (Kevin Aoussou) anything but picture perfect in 1980s London. The meeting of Dorian and artist Basil Hallwood (Ted Patterson) starts it all: Basil’s paintbrush creates a fountain of youth, as his painting of Dorian ages while the man’s face remains the same.

Their cronies include Lord Henry (Robert Brafford), who ignites Dorian’s desire for undying youth and excitement; Lord Henry’s contemptuous partner, Victoria Frost (Farrell Paules); and Alan Campbell (Nathan Morris), the brazen playboy who becomes Dorian’s partner in crime and pays a hefty price for it.

Dorian longs to be accepted after acquiring aesthetic prestige, so he allows his opinionated crew to weigh in on his engagement to Sibyl Vane (Alexandria White, who also plays his three other love interests). Ultimately, he crushes her heart and spirit.

In the novel, Sibyl is so enamored of Dorian that she abandons her love of acting, pledging allegiance only to their relationship and thus contributing to its demise. In this version, Dorian is so embarrassed by her terrible acting with his friends in attendance that he ends their affair.

Wilde’s piece challenges the morals of humanity and the emotional struggles that ensue as a result of its dictates. Empty pleasure, physical beauty and the pursuit of self-fulfillment are all that motivate Dorian at 21; those aims lead him into a 25-year downward spiral, as he sacrifices people along the way. (Wilde’s life ended similarly; he died lonely and destitute in Paris at 46, the same age as Dorian at the conclusion of this adaptation.)

Director David Hensley spotlights Dorian’s physical appeal with moments of partial nudity. Though the plot focuses on aesthetic beauty, the set lacked it. Not much effort was devoted to the design of Dorian’s living quarters, which held plastic picnic chairs and a folding table. There was no pomp and circumstance here; instead, the procession of despondency stayed front and center.

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

Shakespeare Carolina does a modern version of Oscar Wilde’s story about an artwork that absorbs all the moral corruption of an unscrupulous young man.

WHEN: Through June 20 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

WHERE: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

TICKETS: $20 ($10 students, groups, and seniors).

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or shakescar.org.