Monday, April 29, 2013

"Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" by Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde is famous for his professional life - such plays as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband - and his personal life - he was tried for and convicted of "gross indecency," i.e., homosexuality, which was illegal in England at the time (late 19th century). The latter is the subject of the play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. It's a very well-constructed play; playwright Moisés Kaufman combines the actual transcripts from the trial with quotes from related newspaper articles, biographies, and auto-biographies to tell the story in a very real and vibrant way. Walking Shadow Theater Company has assembled an excellent nine-man cast (directed by a woman, co-Artistic Director Amy Rummenie) to play a few dozen characters in Oscar Wilde's universe. This is not an easy play, it requires the audience's attention and participation. It took me a little while to get used to the structure of the play, in which the source of each new quote is cited by someone in the ensemble, but once I did I found it to be a fascinating exploration of ideas.

In the first of the three trials, Oscar sues the father of his lover, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, for libel after he left a card at his club calling him a "posing sodomite" (what a civilized way of insulting someone). Oscar's attorney puts up a good case, but when they learn that the defense is going to call several young men as witnesses to testify against Oscar that could result in him being prosecuted for gross indecency, he withdraws the case. Too late - he's immediately arrested and tried. The second trial, against Oscar this time, results in a hung jury. The third and final trial results in Oscar being convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. He suffers injury and illness while in prison, from which he never recovers; he dies just a few years later, in exile in Paris. Oscar has several opportunities to leave the country during this process to escape trial and imprisonment. But he chooses to stay and fight an unjust law, and to stand up for his ideals of art and aestheticism. He argues that he is a poet and an artist, and that his love for Bosie is pure and misunderstood. Unfortunately Oscar's story has a tragic ending, but it provides for a very thought-provoking and engrossing night at the theater, exploring ideas still relevant today.

Oscar (Craig Johnson) and Bosie
(Casey Hoekstra, photo by Dan Norman)
Leading that excellent nine-man cast I mentioned is Craig Johnson, who gives a rich, layered performance as Oscar. At times funny and flippant, at times hurt and delicate, at other times strong and confident. He is sympathetic and entertaining, from the way he smooths his hair to the expression on his face as he silently listens to his accusers. Casey Hoekstra is as charming as Bosie as he was in last year's Summer and Smoke. You can feel Bosie's love for Oscar, despite the fact that he conveniently leaves the country to avoid prosecution himself. Even thought Bosie is not present for Oscar's second and third trials, he's there in spirit and memory and letters, as he haunts the edge of the stage, watching the proceedings with growing agitation. I hesitate to call out anyone in the ensemble, most of whom are on stage for the entire play and ably play all of the roles and accents given to them. But I will mention a few personal favorites - Bryan Porter is very entertaining as he relishes every diverse role and accent he plays; Alex Brightwell gives a moving closing speech as well as portraying Oscar's friend and fellow writer George Bernard Shaw; and David Beukema displays great range as everyone from Queen Victoria to a bewigged judge to a modern Oscar Wilde scholar.

The Minneapolis Theatre Garage is one of my favorite smaller theater spaces in the cities. It's a great blank slate in which worlds can be created, with the audience close and intimate as actors often wander through the aisles. Set designer Steve Kath has turned it into a courtroom, with a railinged judge's bench, a movable witness box, tables and benches, and books piled in corners. Costume designer E. Amy Hill has done a great job replicating Oscar's outfit in the photo on the cover of the playbill, down to the fur collar and walking stick. All of the characters are in equally meticulous period garb.

This is the kind of play I like. It's challenging, thought-provoking, historical yet relevant, and engrossing, the kind of play that'll leave you with lots to think about and ponder as you leave the theater. And it's well-written, well-acted, and with great attention to detail in the set and costumes and direction. If this is the kind of play you like too, you have four more chances to see it, this Wednesday through Saturday at the Theatre Garage in Minneapolis.

Alex Brightwell and the cast of Gross Indecency
(photo by Dan Norman)