Published in Gay and Lesbian Times January 30, 2003
London. 1895. Oscar Wilde was sitting pretty. At 39, he was the Irish darling of English society: a flamboyant dandy, a celebrated poet, novelist, essayist and playwright. He had two plays running in the West End (“An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”). Wilde was so busy skewering English society, he was completely caught off-guard when it skewered him. Or was he, in the manner of a Greek tragic hero, responsible for his own downfall? Some blame it all on Bosie; Lord Alfred Douglas was Wilde’s young, passionate and poetic inamorato. Their very public relationship incited the wrath of Douglas’ estranged father, the eighth Marquess of Queensberry, who accused Wilde of “posing as a somdomite”(sic). With Bosie’s prodding encouragement (primarily to get back at his father), Wilde took legal action, the Marquess was charged with criminal libel and soon, in “the crime of the century,” all hell broke loose. The vengeful proceedings careened out of control and resulted in Wilde’s arrest, imprisonment, and ultimately, his impoverishment and destruction. It was an ugly chapter in English and world history, but one that has by no means been expunged from the public record; the hypocritical homophobic book has never been closed.
Working from trial transcripts, as well as letters, newspaper accounts, plays, novels, poetry, commentary, epigrams and biographies, Moisés Kaufman created “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” Since the courtroom proceedings turned into a perverse caricature of the legal system, he structured the piece as an English Music Hall presentation, with of course, Wilde as the headliner, the star performer. Kaufman has said that he considers Wilde to be “the first performance artist… In trying to define his own world in his own terms, he came up against a society that found him truly subversive.”
The play garnered acclaim in New York in 1997 and set the stage for the docudrama style that reached its pinnacle when Kaufman and his Tectonic Theatre Company created their brilliant “Laramie Project,” so radiantly re-created in 2001 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Although the story is Wilde’s, the play’s theme is really the conflict between art and morality; it is a damning indictment of the way that government tries to regulate our private lives — a non-trivial subject in the harrowing times of 2003. Wilde didn’t believe in separating his erotic from his esthetic proclivities. But that became his tragedy: he tried to turn morality into art during an age (like our own) that prefers art to be an extension of morality. One might argue that the ‘perversion’ pumping through the narrative is not sodomy and pederasty (the gross indecencies of the title) but Wilde’s refusal to save himself. But it is more satisfying to view him as a true revolutionary — defying authority, spurning convention and inverting accepted values — even at great personal cost. The play serves as witty entertainment, gripping courtroom drama and trenchant social commentary.
Most appropriately, it is the outstanding and ever-evolving Diversionary Theatre that has snagged the local premiere. But the effort highlights rather than diminishes the play’s weaknesses. It is a problematic piece –wordy, prolix and protracted. To counterbalance the verbosity, director Rosina Reynolds has chosen to pump up the pace to breakneck speed, which gives the production a breathless, frenetic and superficial feel. The more direct, penetrating and unadorned original staging served the play better.
Farhang Pernoon is the sun around whom everyone else revolves. He is luminous as the cocky and brilliantly witty Wilde, who gradually loses his luster and nearly disintegrates before our eyes. Angelo D’Agostino-Wilimek is aptly pouty and petulant as young Douglas, and as his volatile, vindictive and paranoid father, Queensberry, Douglas Ireland is a delightfully snarling cur. The rest of the cast is malleable but less memorable, in their multiple roles. David Wiener’s set effectively captures the plush red velvets of the austere Old Bailey and the bawdy Music Hall. Liam O’Brien’s costumes perfectly underscore the class distinctions Wilde so famously satirized. The humor is played a tad broad, with a bit too much mugging and smugness onstage. But what we remember most is the awful story — not a period piece at all, but a cautionary tale and a cold-splash reminder of just how far we haven’t come.
“Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” runs through March 8 at Diversionary Theatre on the edge of Hillcrest; 619-220-0097.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.