By Elizabeth Breed
Admittedly, I don’t consider myself to be a scholar when it comes to the life and works of Oscar Wilde. Of course, being involved in the theatre world, I have studied his play The Importance of Being Earnest and I knew of An Ideal Husband and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. I had no pre-existing knowledge, at least no extensive knowledge, of his personal life as I entered the Grandon Theatre at Theatre Cedar Rapids on Saturday night. To be honest, all I really knew was that he was famously homosexual, a label that was coined soon after, and perhaps as a result of, his London court trials beginning in 1895. TCR’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde chronicles those trials in a precise and affecting manner.
Written by Moises Kaufmann and the Tectonic Theatre Project in 1997, Gross Indecency utilizes letters, biographies, and Wilde’s own work to tell the story of his persecution and ultimate conviction of gross indecency, a term defined by Victorian law as being any actions that could be considered immoral. In Wilde’s case, it was an accusation of sodomy stemming from his relationship with his companion Lord Alfred Douglas. Kaufmann et al. are most famous for creating The Laramie Project, a work that tells the story of the aftermath of the murder of Laramie, Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, and Gross Indecency is written in a very similar manner. Nine actors portray 40+ characters in a fast paced show that elaborates on Wilde’s three trials - not just the criminal court cases, but also the trials of Wilde’s sexuality, his morality, and his art.
Walking into the Grandon Studio on Saturday, I can’t say that I was “transported” into the world of Oscar Wilde, at least not in the literal sense. A minimalist set, the stage floor painted black, serves as an empty canvas on which the actors play. The very intimate space has no large set pieces, but three upholstered period chairs, a platform and rail for the witness stand, and several boxes to provide for levels served many different purposes effectively. An interesting feature of the set was a series of hooks on stage right and stage left. Hanging coats, hats, and other costume pieces there allowed the actors easy access to them when needed and helped create a smooth transitions for the actors' many characters. One particularly nice choice was to have all of the actors playing newspaper reporters wear the same hat, which they would pass off to one another in a staging ballet. The accessibility of the costume pieces was very helpful in keeping up the pacing of a quite difficult script, and the audience was able to stay in the world of the play that the nine skilled actors were able to create.
The actors’ portrayals of the 40 or so characters necessitated fast changes from one role to the next. Many of those switches were gracefully accomplished by the change of accents or dialects, or even slight nuanced postures or gestures. The cast was able to master several English dialects, as well as Irish, Scottish, French, and even a stereotypical American accent. The majority of the time the actors were able to hold their accents with ease, with only occasional slip ups, such as a few dropped accents here or there, and the occasional insertion of an accidental Southern accent, but overall, very realistic and unforced, all around! Since I did not notice a credit of a dialect coach in the playbill, I assume it was the actors and director who worked to make their dialects genuine.
David Morton elegantly portrayed the role of Oscar Wilde. As the doomed playwright, Morton’s Wilde was sophisticated, regal, and even at times gamesome, especially when being questioned by the opposing attorney in Act One. Morton successfully fused a masculine energy with a somewhat feminine gait and posture; mixing that with a timbre one would liken to that of a skilled Shakespearean actor made his performance nothing less than entrancing. When he was speaking, the audience could barely tear their eyes away from Morton; it was evident early on in the production that he had the audience wrapped around his little finger. My friend who attended the performance with me professed her disappointment felt the very few times that Morton was not onstage. Delightfully eloquent and beautifully portrayed!
Matthew James filled the part of Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s companion and lover, with the grace of any nobleman of that time period. Taking full ownership of the role of Lord Douglas, he also mastered several smaller roles with gusto, especially that of Marvin Taylor, a modern day Wilde scholar, in a cute, but slightly misplaced scene. Every role James plays is realized with his entire body, and his moves and dialect are precise. In one particularly touching scene towards the end of the play, Lord Douglas is reading a letter that Wilde has written, which Morton narrates. James does not speak a word, but entire volumes of emotions are recited in his glossy eyes. It is truly heartbreaking.
In Act One, the two counsels are played aptly by Greg Smith and Keith A. Kenel. Smith’s Sir Edward Clark is very intelligent and assertive, but it sometimes seemed was bogged down by the dialect. Despite this, moments of true sympathy occur between Clark and Wilde, and Smith is able to adjust to his strength to meet his powerhouse scene partner. Also lovely are his moments of cross-examination, when he defends his client against his accusers with a cleverness that was very enjoyable to watch. Kenel’s Edward Carson, the prosecuting attorney, was a bit uneven at times, suffering from an imprecise portrayal and an occasionally dropped accent, but he was able to recover during times of direct philosophical dialogue with Wilde and he was truly able to shine.
Kevin Burford’s Act One character is that of the Marquess of Queensbury, Lord Douglas’s father and the man accused of libelous remarks in the first trial. Burford’s portrayal is passionate and unyielding, but again was hindered by the dialect. Many of Burford’s early speeches provide a fair amount of exposition in the first few minutes of the play, and most of them were quite hard to understand, perhaps due to the strong dialect as well as the fast pace that for a majority of the time is very precise, but early on seemed a bit careless. Burford was skilled enough to remedy this as the play progressed, and the rest of his performance, and his other roles, were stellar.
The cast is rounded out by ensemble actors Mike Wilhelm, Paul Freese, Andrew Clancey, and Bryant Duffy, with all the men in the cast serving as narrators, newspapermen, prostitutes, and others. Perhaps my favorite scene in the show was when the four men portrayed the four men who were Wilde's accusers in his sodomy trial. A mixture of smarm, sympathy, and detestation was adamant in this scene. Due to the relationship the audience had established with Wilde early on in the performance, we felt as if we were to despise these men, but all four actors were able to keep empathy and surprising likability in their portrayals, particularly that of Freese’s Fred Atkins and Wilhelm’s Alfred Wood.
One of my favorite performances of the night was that of Wilhelm’s George Bernard Shaw. The only other familiar name to me, Wilhelm’s Shaw was exceedingly likable and almost playful, to the point of nearing close territory of becoming a caricature due to the thick Irish accent, but he was able to hold back just enough that the portrayal stayed truthful. Duffy’s Act Two role of Frank Lockwood, prosecutor in the final, damning trial, was haunting and contained, even in a simple hand gesture made in a non-speaking moment, a moment paralleled in an earlier scene where Duffy portrays one of Wilde's accusers, Sidney Mavor, a time where a powerful, nuanced turn of the body can say so much by speaking so little.
All in all the cast and crew of Gross Indecency has much to be proud of. Through the use of little more than their bodies, the nine actors are able to convey a very big message through very nuanced performances. The text of this piece is not easy to perform, and it’s relevance is not at first evident. But in an age of societal morality issues, particularly those of the rights of homosexuals in this country, this piece is far too relevant, tragically it seems. A truly lovely night of theatre!
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde plays through March 3rd in the Grandon Studio at Theatre Cedar Rapids. Showtimes are 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday, 2:30pm Sunday. Tickets here.