There are big issues being explored in Moises Kaufman's play, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," currently at the Barksdale Theater. And, just in case you can't figure out what they are, the playwright makes himself a character in the play so he can discuss the issues he is exploring.
This satirical violation of the "show don't tell" law of drama is just one of many intriguing devices Kaufman uses in his thought-provoking play. All the complexities and contradictions of Oscar Wilde's tragic downfall are here. We get to see Wilde as icon, Wilde as victim, Wilde as arrogant elitist. If all of these Wildes sound like they make for a crowded play, well, they do, and a long one, too. But still, under Richard St. Peter's assured direction, this production is full of haunting moments and surprisingly funny ones as well.
One of the ironies of Wilde's story is that he brought his personal disaster upon himself. He initiated a charge of libel against his lover's father (Jack Parrish), who had called him "a posing sodomite." Using passages from historical texts, Kaufman vividly reconstructs this first trial, culminating in the dramatic testimony of Wilde (Rick Brandt). Four narrators sit at desks facing the audience, reinforcing the action with intermittent commentary. The quick-witted Wilde plays raconteur at the cross-examining barrister's expense until an ill-fated flippant remark turns the trial and Wilde's entire life on a dime. From that moment on, Wilde's fate becomes inevitable (unfortunately draining the second act of some of its oomph).
Brandt captures the force of Wilde's intelligence, wit and haughtiness perfectly in the first act. Perhaps he captures these too well because it is hard to feel much sympathy for his demoralized Wilde of the second act, so obviously is he a victim of his own hubris. Supporting Brandt is a well-rounded cast, led by a sterling performance by Parrish who also takes a hilarious turn late in the play as Queen Victoria.
St. Peter shows great skill at constructing striking moments onstage, like the reading of a passage from "A Picture of Dorian Gray," a thinly veiled account of Wilde meeting his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Christopher Evans), for the first time. With stark lighting (designed by Steven Koehler) and ethereal music, the interlude virtually shimmers with emotion. The director is also adept at making sly jokes, like using the Police song, "Wrapped Around Your Finger," to characterize Wilde's devotion to Lord Douglas.
Through such stagecraft, St. Peter makes the complex issues explored in "Gross Indecency" more palatable. Which is fortunate because there is some highbrow stuff here. As an example, Wilde argues eloquently that it is irrelevant to judge art on moral grounds. But he does so as part of his legal defense which is a deliberate and vehement deception. This deceit undermines his credibility and, as Kaufman acknowledges, makes Wilde an "unsatisfactory model" for advocates today.
Meaty material like this can be somewhat daunting if you're just going to the theater for a good time, but refreshing if you want a play that challenges as well as it entertains. If you're willing to go the distance, "Gross Indecency" will make you think at least as often as you smile.
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