On a summertime Tuesday night, the Brooklyn queer bar 3 Dollar Bill readied itself to host an unlikely trinity. I wandered in among the ticketholders who were congregating, apparently undaunted by the impending weekday morning, for a performance of Oscar at the Crown. The website announcing this “immersive nightclub phenomenon” promised a show that would situate in one dystopian future the three pillars of society: sequins, Oscar Wilde, and the housewives of Orange County.
A lot to prepare for, perhaps, so the musical’s site also offered some advice: “Wear something cool!” The wardrobes of the audience had clearly obliged. The primary colors dutifully coalesced in a corner over a round of drinks: bright red jumpsuit on one attendee, on another, a bluish sleeveless two-piece number complete with buttons and lapels, and on a third, a canary tee proclaiming, “I’m a limited luxury edition of myself.” An iPhone glowed through the pocket in a pair of pinstriped linen sailor pants descending from red suspenders. Above an ensemble of distressed tartan overalls and a Christmas-toned sweater, and beneath a head of perfectly coiffed pink-tipped hair, I thought I recognized a face.
If I was right, this was Andrew Barret Cox, the choreographer and composer of Oscar at the Crown. Part dance party, part musical-within-a-musical, the show was put on at 3 Dollar Bill by The Neon Coven. This performance collective, co-founded with Cox by director Shira Milikowsky and Mark Mauriello, creator of the earliest version of Oscar, proclaims its particular affection for three things (separated by emojis for emphasis): “queer people,” “theater in nontraditional spaces,” and “screaming.”
A door opened in the far wall of the bar area, letting the audience into the nontraditional theater space of the trio’s dreams. The room was transformed according to the script into a nightclub-turned-bunker dubbed “The Crown.” When I entered, an EDM beat was already pulsing through the space, and three dancers, raised above the audience on a wheeled platform in the center of the room and on the edges of a stage, were channelling that pulse with virtuosity into hip-hop moves and some frankly sick voguing. Yet another unexpected trifecta came together in one dancer’s getup, which miraculously combined the aesthetic elements of roller derby, the U.S. army, and BDSM.
Milikowsky explained to me on the phone after I’d seen the show that this venue had revealed itself to her in much the same way it did to me that night — “like Narnia.” The Neon Coven had booked the front of this bar last year for a rock concert that set the tone for the collective’s work. The concert had featured, for instance, Mauriello’s performance of a punkified take on “Sweet Transvestite” from Cox’s adaptation of the camp classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as well as sneak-peek numbers from Oscar. During the sound-check, Mauriello had opened a door in the back to reveal the ideal space for Oscar at the Crown. Here, the constraints of reality need not apply: the show was free to dispense with the pedantry of believability and draw in the audience by other means.
But at the start of the performance, though like many travelling clusters of audience members I was dancing along to the EDM in the direction of better vantage points to get a look at the dancers, I was not yet in tune with the musical’s methods. When the actors claimed the stage and a spirited opening number soared over the audience, I was immediately in conscientious reviewer mode. After all, my promise to cover the show (made in a press inquiry sent, as directed by the Coven’s website, to the address firstname.lastname@example.org — aw, thanks, you too!), seemed to me then to presuppose my ability to follow the details of the plot. I stopped dancing and strained to hear the lyrics from which to build the requisite informed opinion.
The first blow to the pious theater-goer in me came in the form of the show’s “three rules,” proclaimed by the actors after the opening song with a gusto that put standard exit-sign tours to shame. “Please be aware that the events reflected in tonight’s performance are closer than they appear,” one announced. Another told us, “Move around anywhere you want — any time, all night,” including, as the first voice chimed in, the bar and the bathroom. And finally, regarding phones: “Do whatever the fuck you want with them.”
As the show went on and the sea of spectators swiveled and parted every which way to accommodate the dance of wheeled platforms acting as exuberantly mobile extensions of the stage, I eventually pieced together an understanding of the musical's premise (which I confess I later filled in with the help of the written script). Exiles from a dystopian society — the emergence of which had been predicted by none other than Julie Cooper of The OC, the precursor show to The Real Housewives of Orange County — were residing in a bunker fashioned from a nightclub known as The Crown, and had chosen the Orange County’s housewives and Oscar Wilde as objects of reverence. The latter’s life and love affair with a younger man named Bosie served as the storyline for the sparkle-studded performance that the exiles repeated as their main pastime and were now presenting for a dazed newcomer, a recent reject of the world outside. The leader of the exiles played Oscar, and cast the newcomer as Constance Wilde, Oscar’s wife. But this situation was not easy to ascertain. Explanatory details got lost in the mixture of backing track volume, powerful vocals calling from the stage, and the cheering and stomping of the audience response.
This mode of enthusiasm was entirely justified: the songs were expertly arranged and executed to bear the audience along on the show’s wave of club party energy. The musical jovially rebelled against the role of attentive viewer in which traditional theater casts its attendees. Achieved through its format and all but stated in its three “rules,” the show’s goal seemed to be the liberation and inclusion of the audience. Glitter-clad, angel-voiced, and expertly harmonizing, the actors turned us from passive consumers into ecstatic co-conspirators. I quickly reconsidered my journalistic practices and joined the dancing.
For the most part, Oscar At The Crown stays true to its quotation from the real Wilde’s work: “Life is far too important a thing to ever talk seriously about.” Style and drive supersede the facts of the matter — the finer points of the plot are unflinchingly sacrificed for the momentum of the show, at least for most of its duration. After a bout of booms and crashes outside the exiles’ shelter subsides, the musical’s Oscar decides to “skip the trial scene and go right to the finale.” As an introduction to his rapid-fire summary of the legal proceedings that ended in the actual Wilde’s imprisonment and that I don’t pretend to have followed too closely, anxious as I and the protagonist both were for the next ecstatic song, the show’s Oscar tells us, “Here’s what you need to know, and it’s not important.” As soon as he’s done talking, the music revs right back up.
The musical’s eventual divergence from exile-Oscar’s (and arguably the real Wilde’s) philosophy came as a shock. As Milikowsky described it to me when I talked to her and Mauriello after seeing the show, “it’s a party, it’s a party, it’s a party — until it’s not.” This “rise, crash” trajectory has been central to the musical since its inception as Mauriello’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard, perhaps because, as Milikowsky pointed out, such an arc parallels the plotline of Oscar Wilde’s actual life. Mauriello explained that near the end of the musical came a moment to “pull the rug up” from under the audience so that we would pay attention.
Following the finale of the show within the show, I heard the music cut out completely for the first time since I had entered The Crown. It was like being plunged underwater or having the wind knocked out of me — landing hard on my tailbone, maybe, once the carpet had been pulled out.
“That’s the finale? That’s the ending?” asked with incredulity the newest exile, who had just witnessed the end of the play-within-the-play. This line I could hear perfectly. She proceeded to claim center stage in order to speak up on behalf of Constance Wilde, and condemn her husband’s wrongdoings. The musical’s Oscar grew angry and the rest, including the audience, stood in stony silence. “You can’t just tell the good parts of the story and we can’t just keep telling the same version over and over and over,” exile-turned-Constance argued. Good point, I thought, wishing for the music back. I’ll write that the show was a fantastic time until the end.
Admittedly, the heavy-handedness of the speech left me reeling. But anything more subtle would have gotten lost among the echoes of the throbbing EDM and the full bar’s offerings still ricocheting in the minds of the audience. After a conciliatory song and Oscar’s acquiescence, the ensuing “Megamix” of the musical’s songs plunged me straight back into the dance party I’d entered at the start, but Constance Wilde stuck fast in my thoughts. “Ultimately, what the character of Constance argues for is a multiplicity of voices,” Mauriello explained to me in our interview. That proliferation necessitates a disruption — a feminist rant does the trick, and perhaps little else would.
The creative team’s concern for multiplicity manifested itself with nuance in the show’s casting; the night I attended provided a special example of the dilemmas involved. Mauriello was out sick, so Oscar was played by the understudy, a woman named Zofia Weretka. Milikowsky explained to me that Weretka “has a presence similar to [Mauriello’s], despite their being different genders,” making her the best candidate for the role. However, the switch meant that the relationship between Oscar and Bosie, portrayed by a male-identifying and -presenting actor, could be read as heterosexual.
The standard hazards of live performance as they play out in Oscar illuminate the complexity of its creators’ ambition, which consists in staying true to a story where gender is crucial while rejecting the binary’s limitations on casting. While the initial plan was to preserve the gayness of the couple by having a female actor play Bosie when the understudy went on for Oscar, the directors ultimately opted not to replace Bosie, wary of the dangers of putting in two understudies in leading roles at the same time. But then, according to Milikowsky, “pretty much the entire cast is gender fluid and gender open,” and the central couple’s costumes contributed to non-binary forms of gender expression that ran counter to an interpretation of the couple as traditionally heterosexual.
Nonetheless, Milikowsky is far from dismissive of the unresolved issues of gender fluidity in casting and performance — related questions have long preoccupied her, both puzzling and inspiring. “Do you ask people pronouns when they audition? Do you not? Which one’s more respectful? Which one’s limiting? … When you’re casting someone, are you casting them on how they identify or are you casting them on how they present?” she, along with many of her colleagues in off-Broadway theater, continue to ask. “We don’t have answers. It’s very exciting.”
The unifying factor behind the show’s eclectic collection of subjects suggests that the performativity crucial to gender expression can extend to one’s entire outward-facing self. “To say it the most simply,” Mauriello told me in response to my puzzlement over the renowned writer's connection to housewife-themed reality TV, “Oscar Wilde would have been fucking incredible on Twitter.” Mauriello expresses his fascination with the few people like Wilde who, before the amplification tools of the Internet, were able to “create something of themselves that is larger than themselves” and embody the maxim, “‘My identity is a performance.’” He went on to explain, “Oscar Wilde himself wrote that Jesus Christ was the first person to do this.” After Jesus and Oscar, the venerable lineage of larger-than-life performers of identity continued with “Prince and David Bowie and Madonna and Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe.” Mauriello rattled off the list in one breath.
And why not? I buy it. The Real Housewives of Orange County are nothing if not an extreme example of this process, offering up their entire lives to public image creation. Mauriello added that with the advent of social media, “every single person now has the power to craft that iconic version of themselves.”
The musical was stylized and exaggerated just as an individual would have to do to their persona to transform into an icon — starting with the original religious meaning of the word, and through to the extended definition that applies to the Real Housewives. Though the lyrics that might have clarified this were the hardest to hear, enveloping the audience in the relevant aesthetic was probably the surest way to get this point across. And it was certainly a pleasure to be enveloped in the indefatigable energy that permeated Oscar at the Crown.