Gross Indecency, by Moises Kaufman, is a docudrama detailing the three trials that led to the demise of Irish poet, novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde. In the first trial, Wilde sued his lover's father - The Marquess of Queensbury - for libel, but the lawsuit failed and he was quickly brought up two subsequent times on the charge of Gross Indecency - or in contemporary parlance: homosexuality. Kaufman, who also wrote The Laramie Project with his Tectonic Theatre Project, is known for careful and pointed documentary drama made up of press clippings, interviews and other primary resources. Most of the actors play multiple characters and move in and out of narrator positions as well. Built out of news, commentary and direct accounts of the trials, Gross Indecency is a heart-felt, incisive criticism of a society that would so easily condemn one of its greatest artists.
Now, let me begin by saying, I quite liked this production. But there were a few things that I just can't help but take issue with. First: this is a play that is intended to be performed entirely by men, but this production casts two women. I'm all for giving women more opportunities, but it just doesn't work in this play. Sure, they play the handful of single-line women roles, but they are also mostly playing men, and there is one instance where one of the men plays a woman - which completely destroys the tiny justification I might have made up for the incorporation of women cast members. Second, though there is little justification for the inclusion of women actors, there is even less justification for costuming them as women, since - like their male counterparts - they are playing men for the bulk of the show. Third - and this is admittedly picky of me - the dialect work was generally pretty inconsistent. There were a few actors who conquered the dialects well, but by and large, it was an Anglo-American hodge-podge of voices.
Those elements aside, there really is a lot to admire about the Hilberry's production. Though the blocking and shape of the play are a little clunky, director Blair Anderson effectively tackles the complex storytelling web laid out for him. His actors move skillfully from present to flashback to narration and back again, bringing the audience with them as they go. And the final moments of the show are a true high point of simple, poetic theatricality. Just lovely.
Topher Payne carries a decided depth of soul in his performance of the central figure: Oscar Wilde. Though I would have liked to see a little more of the famous, quipping, carefree Wilde in the first trial, his portrayal of the love story underneath his fall is often heartbreaking. And it seems pretty clear that the actor did his homework about the man he is portraying, as I could hear in his voice some of the qualities I have read in descriptions of Wilde. Annie Keris and Alec Barbour as lawyers Clarke and Carson respectively are thoughtful, well-constructed anchors for the court proceedings. Barbour's patently British stoic formality serves as a useful foil for Keris's increasing personal involvement in Wilde's fate. Keris's Clarke is the only lawyer who participates in all three trials, and her progression through the delicate legal dance is performed with exceptional poise. And Brent Griffith is deliciously awful as the self-congratulatory, boorish Marquess of Queensbury. Each of the supporting actors (Bevin Bell-Hall, Miles Boucher, Brandon Grantz, and Brandy Joe Plambeck) pulls his or her weight, and each has at least one true standout moment. Bell-Hall's Queen Victoria, Boucher's George Bernard Shaw, Grantz's Charles Parker and Plambeck's Fred Atkins, for example, are all spot-on. Unfortunately, David Sterritt's performance as Wilde's lover - Lord Alfred Douglas - is simply lackluster. Though he looks the part, we never see in him the fiery, vivacious youth who would have earned the devotion he inspired in Wilde.
Sarah Pearline's set is just plain gorgeous. The starkly stylized black and white courtroom is an effective metaphor for the black and white morality against which Wilde was being judged, and the constant presence of the court - even in flashbacks that take us outside of it - hovers over all of Wilde's past actions and relationships as his all but inevitable ending place. Michael "Mick" Keathly's lighting design has some really lovely moments, but, like much of the production, feels a little clunky. His use of color is dynamic, and he creates some effective pictures, but there are too many speakers left in the dark too many times...and the spotlight is more distracting than illuminating. Leah McCall's heavy-handed sound design repeatedly dragged me out of the action of the play. Gavel strikes serve as key punctuation throughout the show, and though most are live, a few are inexplicably played through the speaker. And the recorded reactions from the courtroom would probably be better fitted to a sitcom. Mary Gietzen's costumes are excellent across the board (though I stand by my objection to dressing the women as women). The base costumes are attractive, and the small pieces that delineate different characters are appropriate and effective visual cues for the audience.
Gross Indecency is a play about the power of art, the power of love, the power of truth, the power of beauty... and it is a story well worth telling. And though this production is far from perfect, it is an effective, moving and ultimately beautiful piece of art - which seems right up Wilde's alley if you ask me.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman (Director: Blair Anderson) continues at The Hilberry Theatre through March 22. For more information, visit http://hilberry.wordpress.com/