BACK STAGE WEST
February 26, 1998
GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE
at the Mark Taper Forum
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
There is more to Gross Indecency, Moises Kaufman's playful and pointed parsing of letters, writing, and records of the grinding humiliation suffered by Oscar Wilde at the hands of the English courts in 1895, than liberal-hindsight docudrama. If this startling account of institutional homophobia at times feels a bit like one of those TV movies about the bad old days of segregation or McCarthyism or a fill-in-the-blank evil we can congratulate ourselves we now know better about, it is not for lack of theatricality: The action plays out fluidly in front of vast red velvet curtains, with the barest hint of a courtroom setting--tables either side of a podium, another long table on a lower level downstage, at which a versatile four-member chorus sits facing out, not in--and only later, in Act Two, expands upstage over and above a curtain rod, on a raked platform, and at the sides of the stage (the expansive sets are by Sarah Lambert, the dramatic lighting by Betsy Adams).
Yet even at its slickest and most sinuous, it remains a starkly Brechtian presentation, with all that implies not only in stagecraft but in a strong, didactic point of view and a dialectical course of argument (nicely nudged by the give and take of the trial format). In recreating the tragic sweep of the trials--the first a quixotic libel suit brought by Wilde against his lover's father, who accused him of posing as a homosexual, the others absurdly tawdry criminal trials which set out to prove in detail that Wilde did much more than pose--Kaufman is determined to cast Wilde as a gay art martyr, and to take him at his word in his defense of his character and his art.
This is, in the end, wisely if maddeningly true to the man who said, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." Indeed, if Kaufman's literal-minded approach to Wilde's character occasionally gives off the cloyingly sweet odor of hagiography, it may be the show's saving grace, since Wilde in his own words is always much more complicated than he seems at first. And the elfin actor Michael Emerson is up to these complications. Though he looks nothing like Wilde, he suggests a wraithlike, idealized image of Wilde's spirit, moving like a marionette or posing like a tintype but speaking in a voice that skates disconcertingly, and movingly, along the line from petulance to passion. It's axiomatic that anyone who claims so much joy in life knows ugliness all too well, and Emerson beautifully embodies Wilde's inner torment, which was magnified, not engendered, by his public flogging.
Among the rest of the cast, Simon Templeman and Geraint Wyn Davies are both exceptional as opposing barristers, and three out of the four chorus members--J. Todd Adams, Eddie Bowz, and Benjamin Livingston--winningly steal the show in their various guises (the fourth, Mitchell Anderson, is distressingly out of his depth). Mike Doyle makes a chiselled--perhaps all too chiselled--"Bosie" Douglas, and Hal Robinson is practically a silent-film heavy as Queensberry and a pair of judges.
"Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," presented by the Center Theatre Group and the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. Feb. 8-Mar. 29. (213) 628-2772.