Written by Wesley James
Gross Indecency as a script strives elegantly to be beautiful; as a production, it sails effortlessly past beauty into joyfulness. Yes, despite covering some truly grim and harshly relevant material, this play emulates its subject in its commitment to class, grace, and fun – even under fire.
True to title, the play follows Oscar Wilde (Jaime Bragg) through his trials with the English penal system for the crime of homosexuality. Wilde is accused and later personally hounded by Lord Queensberry (Ross Frawley) for the alleged seduction of Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas (Heather Smith). Through a series of courtroom records and cited documents including biographies, memoirs, and newspaper articles, Gross Indecency recreates not only the trials but their tone and spirit – Wilde has legal recourse against Queensberry for slander should the accusations prove to be false, and he puts up a remarkable defense despite being genuinely and unapologetically guilty.
The best compliment (of many) this play pays to Oscar Wilde is in letting him speak for himself – most of his lines are verbatim testimony; and Bragg brings his wit, charm, and sly impudence to life. Wilde is a master of cleverness and poetry – in navigating a courtroom drama, our Wilde comes across as almost burdened by his incredible talent, wearied to the point of hard insolence by both the ugliness of this world and by its lack of challenge. By contrast, the rest of the cast is relentless and energized regardless of motive, flurrying around him in a storm of dialects both expert and silly, characters both grave and comic, buildings up and tearings down and always, desperately, wanting a piece of him. The play delves into the mind of Oscar Wilde simply by situating him, on his witness-stand-turned-throne, among a great crowd of characters trying to pick his mind for a multitude of eventually barely relevant purposes, putting the man and his words to the forefront of the display.
Where Gross Indecency most excels is in proving and celebrating the heroism of a man whose persecutors urged him to flee them, but who stayed. Wilde is at the sharp tip of a witch hunt – when young men begin naming names, it is the terrified gays among the government elite who push to convict him, simply to avoid scrutiny. The night he’s taken to jail, those same elite leave the city in droves. Wilde becomes a homosexual icon in a world before that was a definition one could fathom applying to themselves – he wears his desires brazenly, and undercuts the very gravity of his court cases by lying and coercing and being much too smart to catch. Wilde’s strategy is to live beautifully and then play the game much, much better than those who made the rules; the tragic irony is that his martyrdom is wholly the opposite – a blow to the infrastructure he’d attempted to dance to the top of. The decision to cast women as both Wilde and his lover ties together the many complex themes of identity, refreshing and modernizing this vital story.
For how painful, current, and important Gross Indecency is, it’s also clever, dastardly, and fun. It simultaneously humanizes and deifies and incredible artist, and brings a great deal of thought and insight into his life and ours. See it – for the wit, the quotes, the poetry and beauty, the character work, or the stellar and outrageous dialects – see it.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
by Moisés Kaufman
Directed by Artistic Director Brian Pastor
December 9 – 18, 2016.
City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago
Ticket prices: Adults $25.00, Seniors 65+ $20.00, Students/Children $15.00
Ticketing: Online at http://grossindecencypte.brownpapertickets.com/ beginning Oct 1, 2016
Previews: Friday, December 9 @ 7:30pm
Press Opening: Saturday, December 10 @ 7:30pm