Gross Indecency 

Art and morality don't mix

Courtrooms have always inclined themselves to drama. Even before the days of scrutinizing video cameras, what happened in courtrooms fed the gossip-starved and incited societal debate. Beginning in 1895, the esteemed writer and playwright Oscar Wilde spent much of his time in a room with a gavel, defending his art and his pursuit of beauty and pleasure in all things. Wilde was initially not to be a defendant--the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas--was. Wilde's three trials began after the Marquess wrote an accusation--"posing somdomite"--on a card at Wilde's club. Urged on by Douglas (who had little affection for dear old dad) Wilde decided to sue the Marquess for libel. The end result was something far different from what Wilde and Douglas had hoped for.

In Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, playwright Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project) uses these persecutory trials as the grounding element, then layers transcripts, personal correspondence, interviews, newspaper headlines and other material to convey the tragic downfall of one of the great artistic geniuses of all time. Wilde was at the height of his career when the trials commenced, having penned two acclaimed plays, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, plus a provocative book, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Spontaneous Productions has courageously tackled Kaufman's complex play. The production is mostly compelling, with convincing performances by most of the prominent characters: Steve Martin (Oscar Wilde), TJ Johnson (Lord Alfred Douglas) and Tom Poremba (Sir Edward Clark). Martin captures the essence of Wilde's untamed genius--at once supercilious and charming, immune and sensitive. Martin's Wilde has flair without being too ostentatious and he meets the challenge of Wilde's demise well, withering without being pathetic.

Poremba plays Wilde's solid attorney--practical, honest, professional and with just enough compassion to keep him interesting. Johnson's Douglas is a slightly naïve, brazen lad whose adoration for Wilde is almost boundless. The final principal and attorney for the Marquess, Sir Edward Carson (Justin Johnson), is the neophyte actor amidst these more polished performers and his inexperience shows. Carson's delivery of key passages from Wilde's profound, lyrical writings lacks much feeling, and falls disappointingly flat.

This is a play with little action, no set or costume changes and much poetry. What makes Gross Indecency moving and worthwhile are the stunning, food-for-thought lines spoken by Wilde: "The secret of life is art. Man is hungry for beauty," "Pleasure is the only thing one should live for," "I rarely think anything I write is true," and "One day you will be ashamed of your treatment of me." Early on, it becomes painfully clear that Oscar Wilde lived far ahead of his times.

One of the most interesting aspects of director Bob McDiarmid's vision is the creative use of multimedia. Instead of live action between the principals and supporting characters, screened video segments and taped voiceovers are used--rulings from a judge, testimonies from former lovers, conversations among friends, moral pontifications from the Marquess himself. The video usage is a commendable and crafty way to reduce the "live" cast size (in a town where community theater directors are often left to cast relatives who have never set foot on a stage). The video works best when the frame is more than just a talking head--for example, while Wilde acts out a few teaching moments, espousing beauty in art and speaking about several sensuous masterpieces--voila, those lush works appear on the screen. The video doesn't work as well is when the taped actor seems overly stiff. Impressively, the timing of the conversations between taped actors--whose heads appear largely on a screen center stage--and live ones, works quite well. In some ways, however, the video shortchanges the play because it precludes any spontaneous magic among actors, since the taped actor delivers his lines in the same way, every time.

Overall, Gross Indecency is a remarkable feat for a small theater to pull off. For those who don't know the fate of Oscar Wilde, this play is a great way to soak up a fascinating story, with its multitude of sources and voices, all casting judgment on Wilde's personal choices. It is a resounding reminder that the conflict between art and morality is unrelenting.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman, directed by Bob McDiarmid

8 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday, August 26-28

$10, Spontaneous Productions, 1011 Williams St. (Broadway and Boise)

Tickets/Info: 363-7053, Ticketweb, www.sponprod.com.

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