KPBS AIRDATE: January 31, 2003
It has all the makings of Greek tragedy. A mighty man with more than a touch of hubris, helps to bring about his own downfall and destruction. The year was 1895. London. Oscar Wilde was on top of his game — a wealthy, renowned dandy, novelist, poet and playwright. It was the year he wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He was the Irish darling of English society — until it came to a question of principle — and morality.
Celebrities in the spotlight, as we see daily in the news, often feel privileged, entitled, and above the law. In the court of public opinion, they feel they will always be acquitted. This may have been Problem #1 for Oscar Wilde. Problem #2 was that his prickly issues concerned sexual preference and practices. When he filed a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury, father to his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he began a vengeful proceeding that careened out of control and resulted in his own arrest and imprisonment, impoverishment and devastation. It was an ugly chapter in English and world history, but one that has by no means been erased. The hypocritical, homophobic book has never been closed. Working from courtroom transcripts, memoirs and journalistic commentary, Moisés Kaufman, head of the Tectonic Theatre Company, created “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” Since the whole affair became a perverse caricature of the legal system, he structured the piece as an English Music Hall presentation, with Wilde as the headliner and star performer. The play garnered acclaim in New York in 1997 and it set the stage for the docudrama style that reached its pinnacle in Kaufman’s “Laramie Project,” so radiantly re-created last year at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Now, most appropriately, Diversionary Theatre, San Diego’s outstanding, ever-evolving gay-lesbian performing company, has taken on “Gross Indecency” and given its all. This is a problematic piece, extremely wordy and protracted. To counterbalance the verbosity, director Rosina Reynolds has chosen to have everything move at breakneck speed, which gives the production a breathless and frenetic feel. The more simple, focused and contemplative original production served the piece better. Nonetheless, Farhang Pernoon is luminous, as the smug, clever and brilliantly witty Wilde, who gradually crumbles before our eyes. Angelo D’Agostino-Wilimek is aptly petulant as young Douglas, who encouraged the legal battle to get back at his estranged father, a volatile, vindictive paranoid, impeccably played by Douglas Ireland. The rest of the cast is malleable but less memorable. The set and costumes perfectly portray the period, but alas, the story remains glaringly, painfully relevant today.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.