The Empty Space Theatre, 3509 Fremont N., 547-7500, $20-$30 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 7 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees select Sat. and Sun. ends Sat., May 18
VERA WILDE is the imperfect but compelling union of four minds. The courage of two fearless freethinkers is celebrated by another ambitious duo, Empty Space artistic director Allison Narver and her longtime creative partner, Chris Jeffries, who have shaped a rich performance as resolutely unique as its subjects.
The show dovetails the real-life plights of Oscar Wilde (Nick Garrison), jailed for "gross indecency" in England, and Vera Zasulich (Julie Rawley), a late-19th- century Russian anarchist who shot the governor general of St. Petersburg in a compassionate act of defiance. Five frightened cabaret performers tell the pair's stories in a show within a show that is itself in danger of being compromised by malevolent outside forces (Nathan Anderson's vivid sound design surrounds us with sirens and ominous footsteps).
Writer/composer/lyricist Jeffries has big concerns here—political action as theater, art as anarchy, and the dangerous, vital beauty of creating change both onstage and in life—but they never impede his knack for entertainment. Though his grasp doesn't equal his reach in the more serious songs, he's mostly having cutting, breathless fun: rhyming "Lincoln" with "stink in," impishly nudging the piece's relevance when Vera's passions are attacked in a "war on terrorism."
It doesn't hurt that the cast knows how to romp and helps carry the show over its rough spots. Garrison is elegantly grief-stricken, not imitating Wilde but rather linking him spiritually to Garrison's past roles, such as his star-making Hedwig turn. Rawley is winning as the combative Vera, even if her substantial charms and warm vocals are somewhat muted by a character that Jeffries hasn't given enough breadth. She has a tougher task than Garrison: He gets all of Wilde's bravura peacock feathers—his trial scene, envisioned as a burlesque with Oscar tossing off witty ripostes in Elton John sunglasses, is choice—while she's stuck trying to forge something out of arch, brassy solo turns that suggest Kurt Weill doing Funny Girl. Basil Harris, Bhama Roget, and Robert Shampain distinguish themselves with broad, confidently comic work in multiple roles; Harris and Roget hit home as two crass American producers who justify their bastardization of Wilde's play about Vera, singing "That's How a Show Should Go."
Even when the piece isn't working— and its odd form and functions may never work for everybody—director Narver's energies are in full force. The show feels young and immediate, and it plows ahead with the urgency of her imagination. She's kept the production loose and admirably intimate; it wouldn't fly if she didn't make you think your presence was absolutely crucial to its success.
The show is a bracing accomplishment that suggests in many ways the disparate consequences of trying to say something new.