Nearly a year before a rat's nest of tape recordings and a Pandora's box of kitschy souvenirs became props for the interminable Bill and Monica show, Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde had already earned kudos as the surprise hit of the off-Broadway season. A year's worth of congressional wrangling later, though, Kaufman's courtroom drama looks even more like a prescient commentary on two turn-of-the-century societies with frighteningly similar views about sexual politics. In fact, when viewed through the haze of the current impeachment imbroglio, much of the action in Kaufman's play echoes the famous Wilde epigram "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life."
The two-act play, which chronicles the scandal surrounding Wilde's affair with a lad young enough to be his son, is being presented at the Ricketson Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company. Taking its inspiration from the "living newspaper" dramas of Erwin Piscator and the "epic theater" plays of iconoclast Bertolt Brecht, Gross Indecency doesn't focus on one subject or stay in one place for long. At times Kaufman's play is a high-minded discourse about art and morality, a vitriolic argument about public interest in an individual's private affairs, a deconstructionist discussion in which Wilde's motives are analyzed, and a sporadic yet pointed debate about mainstream society's oppression of all things alternative. Although director Laird Williamson's intriguing docudrama sometimes lacks precision and is hampered throughout by shoddy vocal technique, the two-and-a-half-hour production fleshes out the life of the enigmatic aesthete perhaps best known for his comic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest.
As the play begins, the actor playing Oscar Wilde (Jamie Horton) sets the tone for the evening by telling the audience that time and space are "merely accidental conditions of thought" and that the "imagination can transcend them." With that, the rest of the actors quickly take their places among several leather armchairs on Andrew V. Yelusich's somber set, which consists of a richly stained paneled backdrop, a two-tiered elevated platform that runs the entire width of the stage, and the front portion of the stage itself, which serves as the bottom step of this austere mahogany staircase. Quoting from period newspapers and books (including Wilde's dark novel The Picture of Dorian Gray), the performers describe the events leading to Wilde's civil action against the Marquess of Queensberry (William Denis), the father of Wilde's young lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas (Douglas Harmsen). Seems that after reading a love letter from Oscar to Bosie, an enraged Queensberry paid a visit to Wilde's private club and gave the porter his calling card with the written message "Oscar Wilde: posing somdomite [sic]" . Spurred on by his pouting lover, Wilde promptly sues Queensberry for libel and becomes embroiled in the so-called trial of the century.
In due time, Queensberry's lawyer, Edward Carson (Edward James Hyland), produces a string of cigarette cases that Oscar gave as gifts to several male acquaintances. Carson also threatens to compel testimony that the youths performed sex acts upon Wilde--therefore proving that, apart from a spelling error, Queensberry hasn't wronged Oscar but simply told the truth about him. Facing possible prosecution by the crown for having tacitly admitted to his homosexuality, Wilde instructs his attorney, Sir Edward Clarke (John Hutton), to drop the charges. Unsatisfied, Queensberry forces the crown to charge Wilde with having committed acts of "gross indecency." After two more trials, Wilde is found guilty and receives the severest punishment the law permits: two years' imprisonment with hard labor. (Queen Victoria, noting that "women don't do such things," issued a proclamation in 1886 that outlawed sexual activity between men. It stayed on the books until 1954.)
Horton leads the company with a meticulously controlled portrayal of the quietly assured Wilde. Fixing his gaze just above our heads in order to take in the reverberating gavel strikes and disembodied pronouncements of an unseen judge (Tony Church), Horton nicely conveys the poet's laid-back superiority and calculated eloquence. As the DCTC veteran issues Oscar's carefully worded answers, he occasionally tweaks his responses by lifting an eyebrow in magisterial contempt, pursing his lips with smug satisfaction or raising an index finger in polite, yet firm, objection. Even when Oscar's facade is permanently shattered by Carson's needling--the drama's key turning point occurs when Wilde admits he didn't kiss a certain boy because he found the youth extremely ugly--Horton exudes a steely, detached and almost resigned calm. Surprisingly, the actor rarely affords us more than a glimpse of the legendary flippancy and hubristic arrogance that precipitate Wilde's dramatic downfall. True, we're often entranced by Wilde's philosophical musings and lyrical ramblings. But it's only during the play's spoken choral epilogue that we're swept up--as we should be early on--by the catastrophic consequences of a great man's own actions. Wilde's tragedy isn't that society's philistines finally catch up with him, but that he's been audacious enough all along to treat "art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction."
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As Wilde's well-meaning advocate, Hutton renders a well-spoken portrait of subtle and articulate dimension. When he advises his client, "Think before you speak--it will be better for you," you sense that Clarke has seen his share of victims destroyed by a corrupt system that regards truth as a license to punish and not a means to achieve justice. As the phlegmatic George Bernard Shaw, Mark Rubald summons the outrage of the only prominent British writer to publicly speak up for Wilde. Despite Denis's over-the-top turn as Queensberry in Act One, he eventually hits his stride after intermission. And even though Harmsen's Bosie is more petulant than passionate--a portrayal that's closer to the real-life Lord Alfred than Kaufman's scripted one--his affectionate Act Two episodes with Oscar are touching.
Unfortunately, a few of the performers mistake bluster for feeling as they overproject and scream their lines--in the relative intimacy of a 300-seat theater, no less--or worse, garble them in the apparent wish to substitute speed of delivery for quickness of apprehension. When combined with a few supporting actors' inability to convey believable and understandable accents (Hyland's British dialect, in particular, fades in and out all evening), the company's collective vocal skills fall considerably short of the standard for professional actors. On the technical side, special effects such as projected titles and stark lighting pique our interest but fail to have much overall impact until the third trial scene, when Williamson's surreal staging attains full flower. Still, the director's choice to change the playwright's bone-dry interview with a Wilde expert, humorously portrayed by Rubald, into a crass television talk show adds just the right amount of impeachment-style flavor. Williamson even adds the words "under oath" to Rubald's irony-laden declaration, "It does look like he lied."
After Oscar is packed off to jail, the actors shuffle amid the detritus of the legal system as they recite "The House of Judgment," a poem that Wilde composed a year after his release from prison. When the performers describe the poet's conversation with God--"Wherefore can I not send thee to Hell?" says God. "Because in Hell I have always lived," replies the Man--we're finally afforded an opportunity to hear Oscar's bitter, though faint, cries and to enter, however briefly, into his anguish. In the silence that follows, we don't ponder whether Wilde was saint or sinner. Instead, we're left wondering what kind of civilized society tramples its artists and persecutes those who differ from the norm. Sadly enough, as the play draws to a close, Kaufman's house of judgment looks suspiciously like a never-ending, thoroughly Wildean hall of mirrors.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, through March 4 at the Ricketson Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100.