This New Theater Production Turns Oscar Wilde's Queer Subtext Into Text
'Oscar at the Crown,' a new immersive musical by the Neon Coven, explores the notion of dystopia.
Photo by Ted Alcorn.
The back room of East Williamsburg nightclub 3 Dollar Bill, a spacious place to party outfitted with an elaborate lighting rig and a stage higher and bigger than the average queer bar, felt more like the scene for a glittery night out than the place where a musical theater production was about to happen. Colorfully-dressed people of all genders, sporting anything from intergalactic styles to fetish gear, dance on tables. Spectators in tank tops clutched well drinks, filming the gyrations (presumably for Instagram.)
And yet, this was the pre-show for Oscar at the Crown, a new immersive musical by The Neon Coven (which consists of Andrew Barret Cox, Mark Mauriello, and Shira Milikowsky). The show, much like so many other pieces of art nowadays, takes place in a fascist dystopia. In this one, people are “exiled” for reasons ranging from tax fraud to lesbianism.
A small clan of queers, after being exiled, have found a way to escape from this stressful society, in a bunker where they live as they wish in secret—no social media allowed. Their leader is Oscar, a flamboyant and tall-haired man with a penchant for performance, both the kind done purposefully on a stage and the kind cult leaders might do to draw others in.
The group (which, despite dystopia, still manages to dress very memorably) has a few passionate focuses: reality television (specifically The Real Housewives of Orange County), the show The OC, a conspiracy theory that OC character Julie Cooper predicted the demise of humanity (yes, there’s a song about it), and performing a musical about the tumultuous life and times of writer Oscar Wilde starring Oscar, because what self-respecting musical wouldn’t have a show within a show?
As we’re getting to know all this, they get a notification of a security breach. A woman in a long silvery-white dress has nowhere else to go and wishes to join them. After some suspicion, she ends up being offered a sizeable role in their Wilde production, which ultimately focuses on Wilde’s criminalized love affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, played by a fit brunette with black lipstick and a face tattoo drawn in eyeliner. They sing, they harmonize, they dance, they kiss. The ensemble belts and vogues around them and the audience, which remain standing for the duration of the show. Shimmering electro-pop pulses through big speakers. The finale is a spectacle-laden display of camp and theatrics, during which Oscar dons a white coat with “RIP JonBenet” scrawled on it in neon, for some reason.
When we think it’s over, we’re mistaken—the woman in white returns and remarks that Oscar Wilde’s wife, a writer in her own right with hardships of her own, has been overlooked throughout the evening. “You can’t just tell the good parts of the story; these were real people,” she notes. Then, she sings, a true and heartstring-tugging musical theater ballad that stood in contrast to the evening of bombastic group numbers.
Musical theater is always trying to be something that it’s not. Shows like Rent and Spring Awakening dipped their toes in rock music; superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Hamilton brought hip-hop sounds to the stage. More often than not, these endeavors still felt like musicals, only with a genre filter placed over them. The proscenium and rows of seats remained, as did the high ticket prices, and anyone who caught a few measures of a rock musical’s cast recording would admittedly be unlikely to ask what cool indie rock song you were listening to. Theater, in all its well-loved corniness, always shines through.
Save for a few moments like the aforementioned ballad that really leaned into the musical theater of it all, Oscar at the Crown didn’t meet this same fate. In fact, it succeeded most when it least resembled a musical. Admittedly, this was partially because the sound in the venue made it hard to hear vast quantities of dialogue and lyrics. More than half the time, I genuinely had no idea what was going on. Because I couldn’t latch onto the show’s emotional arc in the traditional plot-based way you would a musical, I had to place my focus elsewhere.
Fortunately, there were plenty of other ways to stimulate my senses. There were the flashing lights, which swiveled and strobed to meet the roving performers, who audience members often had to dodge mid-song. There were the vocal harmonies, laden with interesting chords, belted out by performers I knew were skilled even if I couldn’t hear all the lyrics. The choreography, outfits, and makeup recalled the energy and aesthetics of drag and burlesque shows, and the pop culture-obsessed set design had plenty of details to fixate upon. Oscar was most captivating when you stopped trying to experience it as a storyline fit for Aristotle and merely let the sights and sounds wash over you the way you would during any memorable night out.
And maybe, being a musical staged in a queer nightclub usually home to drag and DJs and dancing, that was its destiny all along.
Oscar at the Crown is currently running at 3 Dollar Bill in Brooklyn.