Oscar Wilde believed in beauty, and the aesthetic movement he helped to promulgate held that life was to be lived decadently, beautifully. He was a large man of larger appetites. He saw living as a string of opportunities for happiness through sensuousness, not a series of moral lessons to be suffered and learned. It’s too bad he happened to live in Victorian England.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde tells the story of Wilde’s eventual conviction for acts considered to be the “gravest of all offenses,” Victorian speak for homosexual sex. The play—by Moisés Kaufman, writer of The Laramie Project, which chronicles the aftermath of young Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder—is told through dramatized excerpts of court transcripts, newspaper articles and books written about the events. There’s plenty of source material to be had, as it was considered (at least for a while by the always-hyperbolic British press) the trial of the century. Make that trials.
The action is centered on the relationship between Wilde and the young, handsome Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie.” Their affair drives Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, to publicly accuse Wilde of “posing as a somdomite” [sic]. Bosie’s hatred for his father causes him in turn to encourage Wilde to bring charges of libel against Queensbury. However, part of proving something libelous is establishing that it is not actually true. Wilde’s inability to do this leads to his own prosecution for the most hated of all acts: loving other men.
The cast of the play is all men, nine actors playing various roles (including women). This choice is appropriate not only because of the subject of homosexuality, but because the legal world was one in which women played no part. We hear Wilde’s wife Constance’s voice only once, through a man’s lips. Her absence is telling.
Directed by Hal Simons, The Vortex’s production is solid. Anchoring the action is Peter Diseth’s performance as Wilde. He’s good; his voice is sonorous and much of his movement organic. Wilde is such a legendary character, his wit so gargantuan, that this role is almost too much of a challenge. Diseth doesn’t quite fill a room the way one imagines Wilde would (or Stephen Fry did in the 1997 film Wilde); he’s best in the small moments, deftly balancing the dark humor and tragedy that was Oscar Wilde on trial for being Oscar Wilde. He is not helped by his costume, what appears to be vintage 1989 Gay Prom King. While the rest of the cast’s dress passes for period, his matching lilac vest, bow tie and handkerchief are not the clothes of a dandy—they’re the clothes of the damned.
In what seems to be a directorial choice, there are few attempts at full English accents, the actors instead opting for inflections. This is wise. Accent work is incredibly difficult, and it’s nice to not have to trudge through terrible accents for two and a half hours.
Some of the best performances come from the play’s older actors. Rick Wiles, Hugh Witemeyer and Brett Hadley (respectively as the Marquess of Queensbury, Wilde’s attorney and the Marquess’ attorney) deliver compelling work. Of the younger actors, Justin Young is most memorable as a modern-day Wilde expert. One of the other supporting actors is so clearly out of his depth, it’s hard to watch. Bad line readings have the effect of sucking the spirit out of a scene, requiring stronger actors to work harder to energize the action again. On a lighter note, Chris Gillooly’s Bosie is an arrogant, self-involved twit. Well done.
The performances—good, bad and otherwise—are hampered by a script that lurches into a history lesson. The construction of the play from actual eyewitness accounts goes from intriguing to enervating. By trial three, we’re tired. And though that may be intentional, so as to mirror Wilde’s own exhaustion and dismay, the audience shouldn’t be rooting for conviction just so it can be over.
This isn’t to say that Gross Indecency isn’t worth watching. It is, and a packed house on a Sunday night appeared to agree. Especially for those who are unfamiliar with Wilde’s biography, the story is captivating. Much of the play’s poignancy comes in the irony that, more than a hundred years later, homosexuality is no longer punishable by the court but can be punishable in many other ways.
If Wilde’s idea of art centers on the importance of beauty, then Kaufman is concerned with truth. The truth he and the Vortex players present is that we can shake our heads and cluck at the tragedy that befell Wilde as much as we like, but we must also acknowledge that there is still a price to be paid for being gay. And if you believe Keats, as Wilde did, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” then this, as they say, is all you need to know.