When contemporary theatergoers hear the name Oscar Wilde, probably the first thing that pops into most of their heads is Wilde’s oft-performed classic comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest, or perhaps one of his many famous sayings.  (“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.” “One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.”)  The Oscar we meet in Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency (subtitled The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde) is quite a different one.

Kaufman’s 1997 play focuses on the series of trials that led to Wilde’s being found guilty of “gross indecency” and given a prison sentence of two years’ hard labor, a punishment said to have destroyed Wilde’s health and led to his death a mere three years later, at the age of forty-six.

In these days of an England where Elton John and David Furnish have been able to enter into a civil partnership with the full benefits of British law, it seems almost impossible to believe that an artist equal in renown to John suffered so greatly only a century earlier simply for practicing “the love that dare not speak its name.” It was, however, a very different England at the end of the 19th Century, and Gross Indecency examines in detail the three court cases which, at least temporarily, made Oscar Wilde the most despised man in all of England.

The Eclectic Company Theatre has mounted what may be the first local staging of Gross Indecency since its 1998 run at the Mark Taper Forum. Though uneven, the production does boast a number of fine performances and provides an elucidating look at an Oscar Wilde quite unlike the one we usually picture.

Kaufman’s approach is a theatrical one indeed. The story is told by a series of seven narrators, each of whom assumes anywhere from one to multiple roles in the play.  Act One, which focuses on the first trial, comes across a bit like a research paper, with the author and name of every historical text footnoted by one of the narrators.  Things perk up considerably, and the drama becomes considerably more intense in the second act, as Wilde’s world collapses around him. 

Only Wilde himself (Kerr Seth Lordygan) does not double as narrator. The actors playing Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosey (Joshua Grant), his lawyer Sir Edward Clark (Darrell Philip), and opposing counsel Edward Carson (Dean Farell Bruggeman) each have occasional narration duties, as does Andrew Hagan, who plays Bosey’s father the Marquess of Queensberry and two other roles.  The remaining parts, which include among many others Queen Victoria, George Bernard Shaw, and some of the comely young men with whom Wilde was “grossly indecent,” are divided up among a quartet of female actors (Allie Costa, JC Henning, Casey Kramer, and Beth Ricketson), a switch from the original Kaufman production’s all male cast, but an acceptable one, given the author’s note that “performers should portray the characters without ‘disappearing’ into the parts.”

It’s a bit disconcerting at first to see Lordygan’s Wilde, the actor’s shaved head and unique facial hair so different from the image we have of the playwright, and his performance too is quite unlike the more mannered, effete Oscar portrayed on film by Robert Morley and Stephen Fry.  It is, however, a performance that grows on you and wins you over. Lordygan effectively conveys Wilde’s conviction that he was in fact innocent of indecent acts (despite the writer’s rather active homosexlife) because to his way of thinking, there was nothing at all indecent about how he expressed himself romantically or sexually. (“It is beautiful. It is fine. It is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”)  It is powerful indeed to see the broken man Lordygan has become by play’s end.

As Lord Alfred, Grant does lovely, nuanced, deeply felt work.  (Kaufman’s Bosey shows little of the insolent, spoiled, serially unfaithful behavior usually attributed to the young man.) Hagan is particularly good as the coarse, brutish Queensberry. Costa and Ricketson too have their effective moments in a variety of roles.  Best of all among the supporting players are the superb Kramer and Henning, who zip in and out of costumes (and accents and gender) to stunning effect.

Lee’s direction is inventive, and she has a good visual sense (e.g. all four actresses standing at times atop wooden blocks as a kind of Greek chorus). Friday’s opening night performance seemed one still in need of rehearsal, though, as many cast members (Philip in particular) appeared to require additional time to thoroughly familiarize themselves with the admittedly wordy script, a situation which additional performances will hopefully remedy.

John Dickey’s lighting is the production’s best design element, imaginative, varied, and mood-enhancing.  Bryce Daniels’ costumes too are mostly excellent, especially the jackets and caps that quickly transform the female narrators into their various characters, though Bosey’s too tight outfit needs alteration or replacement. Dickey and Lee’s set design is bare-boned, and an interesting if disconcerting choice of yellow and red against the stage’s black walls, but Kaufman’s play does not require anything more elaborate. Sean Kozma’s sound design effectively interjects spectator reactions during the trials’ many twists and turns.

The play concludes with Wilde’s poem, “The House Of Judgement,” a powerful coda delivered by the seven narrators speaking in turn and ending with the final stanza “Answered the Man. And there was silence in the House of Judgment.” Perhaps it was these lines which prompted Lee’s ill-conceived choice to do without curtain calls. Whatever the reason, this decision does a disservice both to her actors and to the audience. The former deserve recognition for their work.  The latter deserve the chance to show their recognition.  Turning the house lights up without bows provokes a perplexed “What?” from the audience rather than whatever the director may have intended.

Eclectic’s production of Gross Indecency is a noble and frequently quite well performed effort which will hopefully continue to grow with each new performance. It provides a glimpse into an Oscar Wilde not often seen, and a needed history lesson to younger, and particularly younger gay, audiences.

Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 4, 2009
                                                                               Photos: Susan Lee

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