BWW Review: GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
Written by Moisés Kaufman, Directed by Liz Fenstermaker; Stage Manager, Kevin Parker; Assistant Stage Manager, Amanda Ostrow; Costume Designer, Pamela DeGregorio; Lighting Designer, Erik Fox; Sound Designer, J Jumbelic; Dialect Coach, Susanna Harris Noon; Production Manager, Cat Dunham Meilus; Videographer, Casey Preston
CAST: Morgan Bernhard, James Bocock, Kyle Cherry, John Geoffrion, Gabriel Graetz, Joey Heyworth, Tom Lawrence, David Lutheran, Derek McCormack, Matthew Murphy, Luke Murtha, Brooks Reeves
Performances through August 26th by Bad Habit Productions at Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
Playwright Moisés Kaufman is best known for writing The Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. In collaboration with other members of the Tectonic Theater Project, of which Kaufman is founder and director, they conducted hundreds of interviews and drew on news reports as well as their own experiences in the local community to create a documentary-style drama that relates the story with a combination of good investigative journalism and deeply-felt emotions. Kaufman first employed this original format for storytelling in his 1997 play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde which also depends heavily on the facts of an historical event to generate a compelling piece of theater.
Director Liz Fenstermaker supplies the estrogen and the vision for the in-the-round staging of the all-male Bad Habit Productions' Gross Indecency on the boards at the Wimberly Theatre. Her seating arrangement allows for an intimate view of the action and results in the audience performing as the de facto jury in Wilde's trials. With the exception of the actor in the title role, the members of the ensemble play multiple characters and are charged with reciting bits of narration, including providing the authors and names of books used as source material for the script. They are also kept busy moving furniture and making small costume changes to differentiate the scenes and their roles, and you might find one or more of the young men seated next to you periodically, as I did, further immersing you in the intensity of the moment.
At the height of Wilde's success in 1895, while his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were both being performed in London, he filed charges against the Marquess of Queensberry for committing an alleged criminal libel. The Marquess, whose handsome young son Lord AlFred Douglas was involved in an intimate friendship with the older writer, left his calling card at Wilde's club inscribed: "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite" [sic]. In order to defend himself and avoid incarceration, the Marquess hired detectives to find evidence of Wilde's proclivities, turning the trial into a salacious examination of Wilde's life and the morality of his works, and ultimately forcing him to withdraw his prosecution.
Although his friends advised him to leave the country following Queensberry's acquittal, Wilde elected to remain (beyond principle, it is unclear why he chose this self-destructive route) and he was arrested and prosecuted for gross indecency for homosexual acts. Although the trial ended in a hung jury, the government continued to pursue the case in a third trial that finally resulted in Wilde's conviction and subsequent imprisonment for two years at hard labor. Using the trial transcripts, personal correspondence, interviews, and additional source material, Kaufman maps out Wilde's life story from fashionable celebrity to object of public scorn, but takes care to shine a light on his artistic genius and the importance of his philosophy in the context of the Victorian era.
With no scenery to speak of (other than a pair of video screens at opposite ends of the stage) and few set pieces, our attention is focused squarely on Kaufman's words and their delivery by this talented company. John Geoffrion is mesmerizing as the flamboyant Irish writer-poet-playwright. A tall, bald man with expressive eyes, Geoffrion's portrayal covers a range of Wilde's emotions and behaviors so well that it doesn't matter that he lacks the artist's mop of wavy, chin-length hair. In fact, as Wilde's circumstances begin to spiral out of his control and Geoffrion wipes sweat from his bare pate with a handkerchief, it makes his distress all the more palpable. At the start of the journey, his well-dressed appearance and the cocky gleam in his eye are the outward manifestations of his artist's aesthetic, intellectual superiority, and the knowledge that the world is his oyster. Geoffrion masterfully uses facial expressions and body language to indicate the crumbling of Wilde's internal fortifications as he is repeatedly buffeted by external societal and political winds.
The foremost transmitter of those external winds is the blustery Marquess, played with considerable huffing and puffing by David Lutheran. He makes a wonderful villain (one would not be surprised to see him twirling his mustache) and an excellent foil for Wilde's witticisms. Lutheran also creates the less-blustery characters of the prosecutors in the second and third trials, and ably distinguishes them vocally and physically. Kyle Cherry (Douglas) seems to relish the devilish and seductive aspects of playing against the Marquess and Wilde respectively. Watch him when he is on the periphery of a scene to gauge how fully engaged he appears. In this, he is the first among equals with the other young men of the ensemble (Morgan Bernhard, Joey Heyworth, Derek McCormack, and Luke Murtha) who often remain onstage when they are not directly involved and easily shift their portrayals from one character to another.
Matthew Murphy is solid as Wilde's frustrated attorney Sir Edward Clarke, and Tom Lawrence (George Bernard Shaw) and Brooks Reeves (Harris) convincingly befriend and support Wilde. Gabriel Graetz (Carson) hammers at Wilde in the first trial as opposing counsel, and reappears as an unsympathetic judge in the later trials. James Bocock is only seen on video at the start of the second act, but realistically portrays NYU Professor Marvin Taylor, a Wilde scholar being interviewed by Kaufman about the trials and their cultural significance in that era. The echoes that continue to resonate in our era – judging not only the man, but homosexuality, art, and morality – give an uncanny timeliness to Kaufman's play, especially as the Tea Party strives for relevance in an election year.
The work of Lighting Designer Erik Fox and Sound Designer J Jumbelic takes prominence in the courtroom scenes, with intense illumination casting a glare on the proceedings from which Wilde is unable to hide, and loud bangs of the gavel sealing his fate. Pamela DeGregorio costumes Geoffrion at first in a purple velvet jacket with a colorful cravat, and later puts him in more subdued earth tones. However, he always totes his signature walking stick. The parade of young men who are called to testify against Wilde are clearly in a lower social stratum, as evidenced by their attire. The Marquess and the officers of the court wear well-tailored suits as befits their station. Videographer Casey Preston projects key pieces of evidence on the dual screens.
At the post-show talkback following the press opening, Fenstermaker emphasized the challenge of mounting a production that relies overwhelmingly on words when we live in a visual age. With the contributions of the design team and the ability of the cast to inhabit their roles, I'd say the director found the way to vividly bring the words to life.