The tone of theatre Q's production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisès Kaufman, which runs through June 22 at Palo Alto's Dragon Theatre, is set even before the play begins. As the actors take the monochromatic stage, blank books stacked in piles and strewn about on tables, we are informed by one actor after another that there will be a 15-minute intermission, that snacks and drinks are available in the lobby for a dollar, and, yes, that it would be very nice, indeed, if we could all please turn off our cell phones. For the next couple of hours, the actors share narration duties in the same sort of way, as they collectively weave the story of Oscar Wilde's fall from grace in the spring of 1895.
That February, Wilde had two popular plays running simultaneously in London's West End, including The Importance of Being Earnest, which, coincidentally, runs through June 21 at Bus Barn Stage Company in Los Altos (see review). By the end of May Earnest had been shut down, Wilde's property had been seized and auctioned, and Wilde himself would be in prison for the crime of gratifying himself sexually with other males.
Kaufman uses trial transcripts, news accounts of the day, letters, biographies, and memoirs as source material for his intelligent and engaging play. As actors recite these texts, sometimes interrupting one another, the experience is less like attending an evening of dramatic theater -- although there are certainly dramatic moments -- than a fascinating lecture by not one but nine intensely captivating speakers. Thanks in no small part to director George Quick's creative hand and smart choices for his actors, it was one of the most compelling evenings of theater I've experienced in a long time.
The play's central theme concerns art and morality, specifically, whether art must be moral in order to be considered art at all. The mores of the time argued that it must be so, but Wilde places the notion of art and the human impulse to make, take pleasure in, and admire beauty above the dull and hypocritical strictures of British society. No book can be immoral, he testifies, if it is well written. Bad writing is the greater crime. Style trumping content, we might huff today, but Wilde appears to have sincerely believed that beauty and pleasure were immensely valuable aspects of life. If it feels good, he might have said had he been born in 1960's London, when the laws that imprisoned him were finally overturned, do it.
Four narrators take us through the events of the spring of 1895 and a few years thereafter (prison was too much for Wilde; he died on November 30, 1900). At various points in the play, Matthew Lowe, Kevin Hsieh, Thomas Azar, and Patrick Hilt are judge, jury, George Bernard Shaw, and four young men brought before the court to confess their sexual liaisons with Wilde (three do). Presented to us as opportunistic naughty boys in black stockings, shorts, and suspenders, their salacious presence is meant to make us struggle with the play's other central theme: the morality of the artist himself, whose arrogant belief that he could lie in court about his affairs strikes today's theatergoer as hopelessly naive. He must have been one of those elites we keep hearing about in the current political contest, who thought the rules didn't apply to him.
At the center of the piece is John T. Aney as Oscar Wilde. Aney plays Wilde for all he's worth, his mocking condescension and easy self confidence flooding over us in Act I, his broken despair kicking us in the guts in Act II. Aney is terrific, and he's supported by the equally watchable Michael Moerman, whose Queensbury fairly spits with fury at the thought of this horrible, immoral man consorting with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, whose steely love for Wilde is disquietingly self-righteous in the hands of Scott Ludwig.
Balancing the three protagonists is Kevin Copps, who is wonderful as Wilde's skilful-but-pragmatic attorney, and Frederik Goris, who is sympathetic and engaging as Queensbury's first defender. The back and forth between Aney's Wilde and Goris's Carson is one of the many high points of the piece. In one scene, Wilde's self confidence gets the best of him, causing him to mistake the patient Carson for a chum he could confide in. Alas for Oscar Wilde, open court turned out not to be a very good place for the truth, either.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde runs at theatre Q through June 22, 2008. 535 Alma Street, Palo Alto. Tickets are $15-$25. For tickets and information visit theatrebayarea.org or call 415-433-1235.