The past, present and future are but one moment in the sight of God. Time and space are merely accidental conditions of thought. The imagination can transcend them.
It’s this quote from Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” that allows Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde to take flight. In piecing together the trials of Wilde, Kaufman’s play lives up to the transcending quote by conjuring people and events from the Victorian era, while keeping the audience aware of how it and the characters relate in our own place and time.
Borrowing theatrical ideas from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, Kaufman keeps the audience thinking throughout Gross Indecency. As the narrator-actors make quotations from newspapers, biographies and Wilde’s work, they switch back and forth between first and third person to present an assortment of characters ranging from George Bernard Shaw to Queen Victoria. Instead of viewing the actors as the characters themselves, the audience gets a variety of perspectives extensively compiled by Kaufman to present his take on the infamous trials.
As the celebrated author of the plays The Importance of Being Ernest, An Ideal Husband and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde was a key figure in creating the aesthetic movement in English art—the call of art for art’s sake. Wilde was also known for his devastating wit and insight when it came to commenting on English society.
Although he was married with two sons, Wilde had homosexual relationships, most notably with Lord Alfred Douglas. After the trials, as Kaufman presents it, the definitions behind sexuality became more rigid, due in part to the charges against Wilde for “gross indecency” with men.
Throughout the course of the play, Kaufman exposes many of the trial’s prejudices and injustices—prejudices and injustices that still exist today. So it’s no surprise that as we watch Wilde and his art on trial, there are constant reminders of litigation today when “morality” is weighed against “divergent” personal freedoms and viewpoints.
As English officials viciously hound Wilde for “the worst kinds of acts,” you can’t help but think of recent local attacks against Movie Buffs manager Larry Peterman, Spanish Fork teacher Wendy Weaver and the East High Gay-Straight Alliance. Even Wilde’s art is put on trial and used by the prosecution to attack him, reminiscent of the religious right’s call to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts based on a couple works they deemed obscene.
Although it has heavy doses of social commentary, the play is not a didactic diatribe. Gross Indecency explores historical perspectives and how history is constantly being interpreted. And with all of this, Kaufman still tells a spell-binding story that is an inspired testimony to the power of live theater.
Salt Lake Acting Company’s choice of Gross Indecency was a natural, given the theater’s track record of producing challenging and stimulating modern plays. So, it’s a bit of a disappointment when the production on hand feels like it doesn’t quite live up to the material. Even though SLAC gives Gross Indecency a good effort, the production occasionally feels like it hampers the material instead of elevating it. Framed in a handsome dual-level courtroom with a series of ornamental British union jacks, the performance frequently feels as wooden as its set.
Keven Myhre’s rigid set-design choices had a negative effect on his directorial decisions. Just like the ordered formality of Myhre’s courtroom set, the entire play is directed with an overall stiffness that sometimes seems to restrain the actors and Kaufman’s material from flowing.
As Oscar Wilde, Kurt Proctor looks very much like Wilde himself. As the only actor who doesn’t switch in and out of various characters, Proctor is a good center to the production, believably presenting emotions that would have been in line with Wilde’s struggles in the last trial.
But Proctor seems to throw away many of his witty lines and bon mots in the first trial: Wilde was the plaintiff going after the Marquees of Queensbury (Lord Douglas’ father) on libel charges, after the Marquees accused Wilde of being a “posing somdomite (sic).” While he is cross-examined about his art, Proctor never makes the proceedings feel like a game of words where Wilde would initially have the upper hand.
Another doubtful aspect in the SLAC production centers around the relationship between Wilde and Lord Douglas. Whatever sort of passion that exists between the two never feels genuine from either Proctor or Carl Nelson (whose passionless performance as Lord Douglas makes one wonder why Wilde took up litigation against his father in the first place).
In a play that demands precision performances from its ensemble, the rest of the cast gives distinguished performances, even if everything didn’t run like clockwork on the night I attended. Robert Ormsby stands out particularly as a rage-filled Queensbury, and Blaine Christine is a delight as the stuttering NYU professor Marvin Taylor. Rick Frederick, Paul Mulder, Robert Scott Smith, Michael Cox and Rory Kozoll all do admirable character work in the production.
With the guidance of Jim Craig’s attention-focusing lighting, and K.L. Alberts’ plush costumes, Gross Indecency still registers as powerful work, even if the severity of its staging prevents it from fully coming to life. Despite its few failings, Gross Indecency still should fall on anybody’s must-see list, simply for its sheer brilliance and its insightful look at Wilde, history and today.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde continues Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at the Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North. Call 363-SLAC or 355-ARTS for tickets.