MTG’s ‘Gross Indecency’ Is a Wilde Historical Ride

MTG’s ‘Gross Indecency’ Is a Wilde Historical Ride
"I do not say you are, but that you look like you are." Edric Johnson's Marquess of Queensberry accuses Dennis Yadon's Oscar Wilde in Madison Theater Guild's production of 'Gross Indecency: The Three trials of Oscar Wilde.'

It’s easy to forget, centuries removed from the actual events, that some of the world’s greatest and most enduring artists met with miserable, ignominious ends. Edgar Allen Poe died penniless in a mental asylum. Herman Melville died an obscure and broke custom agent. And I’m willing to bet that a fair share of the audiences who busted gut enjoying American Players Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest were completely unaware that the author died disgraced, disowned and poor after being convicted of gross indecency and scarcely surviving a two-year, hard-labor stint in prison.

Playwright Moises Kaufman couldn’t be more aware of it, since it’s the basis for his insightful, clever and entertaining play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The Madison Theatre Guild‘s production (running through November 22 in the Bartell’s Evjue space) uses some deft design touches and solid casting to add some additional weight to the proceedings. The play’s set in the Victorian era, sure, but it still has a lot to tell us today.

The story’s a tad complicated, so a little history is probably in order: Near the height of his popularity as a writer, intellectual and playwright, Wilde received a nasty card from the Marquess of Queensberry, the angry father of Lord Alfred “Bosie’ Douglas, a twenty-something with whom Wilde had been consorting. The card accused Wilde of being a “posing somdomite” (sic), a charge that led to Wilde suing Queensberry for libel. During the trial, Queensberry produced evidence that Wilde had been sleeping with working-class male valets and grooms. Wilde abandoned his case, only to see the monarchy arrest and try him—twice—for acts of gross indecency.   

Director Steve Noll’s tosses his first curveball immediately—it’s the play’s seating, arranged in a triangle designed to represent the three juries at the three trials. (The biggest side is saved for the third, most controversial trial.) The actors playing Edward Carson, Queensberry’s attorney (Jason Compton) and Sir Edward Clarke, Wilde’s attorney (Erik Andrus) each address their remarks to the appropriate set of seats. Compton, sporting a Scottish kilt, gives a particularly sharky performance.

Dennis Yadon makes for a convincing Wilde, with his shaggy black wig, green boutonniere and purple-sequined cravat. Noll has suggested that Wilde may have been the first person to be famous simply for being famous, and Yadon’s performance incorporates and capitalizes on that. His Wilde is clearly aware of his celebrity status. In fact, it’s what undercuts him in the first trial—he’s cocky and cavalier, certain that his fame, popularity and English-Renaissance intellect will tuck legal victory easily into his handkerchief pocket. It’s fascinating to watch the changes in Yadon’s demeanor as things take a devastating turn for the worse—he goes from confident and bold to deflated, desperate and defiant. “I would rather have a hundred unnatural vices than one natural virtue!” he decries as the British Puritans prepare to pillory him.  

Other performances also resonate. Edric Johnson all but spews acid from his eyes as the raging Marquess of Queensberry—he spits his lines at his son and at Wilde. “I do not say that you are, but that you look like you are,” he snaps in reference to the charge he’s aimed at Wilde. Ben Seidensticker’s does a great job evoking Bosie Douglas as a headstrong youth whose need to best his brutish dad ends up destroying his lover and mentor.   

Kaufman’s play is like a Swiss watch, with tons of moving pieces, mostly in the form of cast members (Benjamin Fritz, Akshat Woodhouse Sharma, Sean K. Donohue and Francisco Torres) who dart quickly on and off stage to announce the published source material of the words (autobiographies, newspaper articles, letters, trail transcripts, etc.) that the actors are about to speak. It’s a clever and exhilarating strategy to spice up what might otherwise have been a history lesson or a straight-up courtroom drama, but with a ten-man cast playing multiple roles, there are points where the rapid-fire-pace led to a couple of stumbles and mixed-up lines. It’s understandable, and it doesn’t derail the proceedings.   

Kaufman’s historical-document structure is what gives the play its zip, which is why it feels like some of the momentum is squandered with the device that starts the second act. It’s a brief interview between Kaufman himself (Torres again) and a professor (Calvin Bruce, who also plays the judge in all three trials) who expounds on topics like the death of aestheticism and whether or not Wilde self-identified as homosexual at a time when that construct didn’t really exist. Bruce’s dialogue helps frame the play’s events through another historical spectrum, but this is a case of telling, not showing, and it’s not as effective. Fortunately, it’s a brief aside, and the professorial conceit is only repeated once more.

Noll has fielded an all-male cast, which leads to a few intentionally comic moments, like when Bruce slaps a lace scarf on his head to stand in for Queen Victoria issuing the edict that leads to Wilde’s arrest. Also gotta love how Kaufman’s dialogue has the Queen respond to a question about why women aren’t mentioned in the crown’s edict on gross indecency: “Women don’t do that.”  

As the lawyers bicker and the press tries the case in its pages, it becomes clear that Wilde’s predicament is as much about his cavalier willingness to cross class lines to sate the love that dare not speak its name as it is about his homosexuality. Noll emphasizes the point by having the working-class men Wilde consorted with take the stand in muscle shirts and boxers. They were pretty playthings for Wilde, and now they’re tools for the forces who seek to destroy him.

It’s interesting to think what Wilde would have been like and achieved had he been born in our day instead of the Victorian era—maybe he’d be sitting behind the desk of The Daily Show or have his own Sirius XM station rather than rotting in a prison cell. Either way, MTG’s production reminds us of a time when misplaced morality could and did run roughshod over freedom and art…and that we’re maybe not as far away from that as we think we are.

Editor’s note: Due to scheduling conflicts, the reviewer reviewed the Thursday night preview performance of the play.