Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
"Sex and Politics." That's the theme of Bad Habit Productions' sixth season, and both themes are front and center in the electrifying first production of the season, Moisés Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde."
Kaufman, the author of "The Laramie Project," delivers a play that is, in large part, a documentary for the stage. All of the dialogue is derived from books, court records, letters, and other written sources, and the sources are verbally footnoted throughout.
But there's nothing dry, dusty, or academic about "Gross Indecency," and there's little about it that could be called indelicate, though there are pockets of real carnal heat residing in the work's fabric of mostly intellectual tension, a struggle between Art with a capital A and social intolerance of all sorts.
The popular thumbnail understanding of Wilde's trials was that the celebrated 19th century wit and dramatist was put in the dock for sex with younger men. But that's only part of the story, and not even the larger part; despite the harrumphing of homophobic barristers and judges (one of whom declares that he'd rather be facing a case involving "the most shocking murder" than hearing about gay sex), there were larger and deeper forces at work, most of them just as prejudicial as anti-gay animus.
Wilde was an Irishman living in the upper strata of English society; moreover, he exuded an "effeminate" air. Perhaps worst of all, he was an artist and he celebrated art with peerless craft and rapier-sharp commentary; there's nothing more suspect to a moralistic society than an artist, and nothing more threatening to fossilized societies than the sort of sharp, lightning-quick wit that was Wilde's trademark.
Central to the story is the fact that Wilde (played by John Geoffrion) did not have just one, but three trials; the first was a case he brought against the Marquess of Queensberry (David Lutheran), the very same noble for whom the rules of boxing are named. The Marquess sparked the trial by leaving one of his calling cards with a club waiter, on which a scrawled, misspelled message accused Wilde of being a "posing somdomite."
In this, the Marquess was clever: He did not make the improvable claim that Wilde was, in fact, a "sodomite," but rather pointed up Wilde's public companionship with a number of younger men--including, crucially, the son of the Marquis, Lord Alfred Douglas (Kyle Cherry). The Marquess claimed in the libel trial that Wilde brought against him that he was concerned for the public good in general, and his son in particular, and that was the reason for his charge against Wilde; but the prosecution, and Alfred, maintained that the Marquess, who was something of a "brute," was seeking to harm his son's reputation and cause his ex-wife heartache.
Whatever his reasons may have been, the Marquess' ineptly written slur proved to be the match that touched off a conflagration. Wilde refused to put Alfred on the witness stand against his father, feeling it would be too unseemly; meantime, the defense scared up a number of young men, previous Wilde companions all, who were willing to testify that Wilde had enjoyed sexual relations with them. Rather than face such testimony, Wilde withdrew, but the Marquess, pressing his advantage, then appealed to the government to being charges against Wilde, leading to the second trial (which ended in a hung jury) and the eventual third trial in which Wilde was found guilty of "gross indecency" under a Victorian-era statute and imprisoned for two years.
There's a definite sense of the trial unfolding in this production, which is mounted in a theater-in-the-round fashion, but the play also stages illustrative scenes of Wilde together with his various supporters, including Alfred, as well as scenes of the young men Wilde supposedly slept with all engaged in a little conclave of their own replete with cards and flirtations. (Most of them admitted to taking money for their time and their favors; some of them copped to being blackmailers who had seduced more than one nobleman.)
There's a note of modern context provided in a videotaped interview between a classics professor named Marvin Taylor (portrayed by James Bocock) and playwright Moisés Kaufman. Taylor points out that previous to the trials, gay men did not view themselves as a certain subset of the populace, and neither did society at large. Homosexuality was not understood to be a state, or a normal human variance, but rather a "vice" or a behavior. (This uninformed view is still promoted by certain retrogressive and anti-gay groups, in defiance of a mountain of scientific evidence.)
The legal, social, and aesthetic matters the play investigates are compelling enough, but what truly drives this production are the performances and the outstanding direction by Liz Fenstermaker. Geoffrion embodies Wilde's arrogance and erudition; he has a certain haughty stare, and a sort of top-shelf energy and bearing, that allows him to repeat Wilde's testimony without sounding pompous or crass. Wilde had definite, forceful views on art, and he gave those views voice in the loveliest, most articulate sentences; from a lesser actor, or one less invested in the part and the persona, those lines would simply fall flat. Geoffrion makes them soar.
David Lutheran presents a phlegmatic, often drunken, Marquess, whose bellowing (and sometimes staggering) performance veers between cold and dangerous calculation and radiantly heated malice. (Lutheran also plays two other parts; most of the cast do take on numerous roles.)
Kyle Cherry's Alfred is as callow and desirable as he should be, but as the trials progress and Wilde's downfall, sudden and dramatic, occurs, his character grows more complex; quoting from Lord Douglas' autobiography, Cherry embraces bitterness, regret, and a strain of affection that even Wilde's appalling destruction could not eradicate. (One of the play's most moving passages comes in the form of a letter written to Alfred from the imprisoned Wilde, who assures the younger man of his undying love.)
From its first moments to the very end, this production remains intense, intimate, and gripping. Far from the "Gross Indecency" of its title, and in deliberate counterpoint to what Wilde famously called "the love that dare not speak its name," this play is a celebration of the most rarefied, and dignified, of human sentiments; a connection that Wilde, at one moment, says happens only once in a human life.
"Gross Indecency" continues through August 26 at the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please visit http://badhabitproductions.org/