De Profundis
★ ½
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill
Through Sunday, Jan. 15

Last year, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s second-stage series devoted an entire season to two-to-five-year-old repertory solo works by out-of-town playwrights, in a drastically smaller-scale, alt-theater version of the itinerant shows that visit DPAC and DECPA.

So it was entirely appropriate to raise the stakes this season. In August, PRC² presented the world premiere of Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s autobiographical solo, Draw the Circle. In late December, director Brian Mertes, designer Jim Findlay, and actor Nicole Villamil began a three-week residency to create a new stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, culminating in workshop performances that run through Sunday.

Given the challenges involved, those workshop showings may have been a miscalculation in the first place. But after the loss of precious rehearsal days due to last weekend’s weather, De Profundis was not yet ready for public performance on opening night. Lest I be misinterpreted, I base my rating for the show on this fact alone. It is not a statement about the worthiness of the enterprise or a prediction of its ultimate success.

Those familiar with the redacted version published in 1905 by Wilde’s executor, Robert Ross, or the unexpurgated text released in 1962, are already well aware of what Mertes, Findlay, and Villamil were up against in their efforts to create this adaptation. In its original form, De Profundis was an eighty-page jeremiad. It begins with a blistering indictment of the narcissism and neglect of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, during and after Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency” (homosexuality, in Victorian England) for which he was sentenced to two years’ hard labor at Reading Gaol. Wilde indicts himself with no less rigor for squandering his creative gifts during their relationship.

De Profundis then shifts into an extended analysis and a reimagining of Christ as “the most supreme of individualists”—an ideal poetic and romantic figure, and one whom Wilde would one day devote himself to emulating in a late-life attempt at self-reinvention. As a theatrical text, Wilde’s dense and intricate prose is very hard to swim through. On Wednesday night, the artists in this effort were nowhere near safe harbor.

That was true despite a barrage of postmodern strategies—and, frankly, tricks, in some places—ostensibly designed to “crack open” the text and place Wilde’s words in different mouths and situations. Many of these were unfruitful, as designer Findley candidly acknowledged when he said in a post-performance discussion, “We’ve been trying to find the techniques where we can hear [Wilde]. I don’t think we have it yet.”

We watched, uncomfortably, as these three minds experimented with, and then abandoned, various approaches. If their aesthetic goal is akin to François Girard’s audacious 1993 film, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, its execution on Wednesday was closer to the hapless theater-student characters in PlayMakers’ problematic indictment of devised theater from last season, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

Still, I cannot begrudge these artists any of the work or the time they’ve needed to reach their goal. There are thousands of ways to get De Profundis wrong on stage, and, by now, Mertes, Findley, and Villamil have learned a great deal about what doesn’t work—a necessity if you’re trying to discover what does.

Brightest among their efforts was a meditation on an ink smudge Wilde left on a page in his manuscript. “It looks like a man dancing in a heavy wind,” Villamil’s narrator observes early on, before later sequences in which she relates to the figure, which is projected on a side wall. These moments of connection with a character outside herself were a marked and welcome contrast to the series of facades and vocal impersonations Villamil adopted and discarded throughout the work.

To come out of the depths—the translated meaning of Wilde’s title—you have to plumb them first. This trio is still doing so at present in De Profundis.