Three Surprising Things: MTG’s ‘Gross Indecency’

Three Surprising Things: MTG’s ‘Gross Indecency’

One of the greatest things about live local theater is its power to surprise us, to defy our expectations and shake our sense of what we think we know. That said, sometimes it’s not a bad idea to have at least a little sense of what you’re getting into when the lights go down. Luckily, Steve Noll, the director of Madison Theatre Guild’s production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, opening this Friday in the Bartell Theatre, isn’t shy about giving Stage Write the scoop.

1. It’s a courtroom drama—but then again, it isn’t.

One of the things that drew Noll to the play—he was inspired in part by the production staged by the now-defunct Madison Repertory Theatre in the early 2000s—is its unusual storytelling conventions.

“The play jumps in and out of time and memories,” Noll explains. “I was captivated by the theatrical, nonlinear way in which the story is told. I’ve always wanted to do a memory play.”

2. Wilde’s not actually on trial for his homosexuality—at least not strictly.

Heck, in the play’s first trial, the witty author of The Importance of Being Earnest isn’t even the defendant—he’s the plaintiff, suing the brutish Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his male lover, for libel. But revelations in the first trial lead to the second and third trials, in which Wilde finds himself on the defensive. And the results dramatically alter the Irish poet’s life.

“Wilde’s downfall was actually class-based,” says Noll. “People were just as shocked by the fact that he was sleeping with valets and coachmen as they were by the fact that it was male-to-male. The prevailing thought at the time was that you have your place in society and you only should be with people who are like you.”

Wilde’s fame at the time—Noll dubs him the first celebrity to be famous for being famous, sort of like the Victorian-Era version of Kim Kardashian—only heightened the trials’ notoriety. For Noll, the play’s key questions center on the role of art in society—are people allowed to have the freedom to pursue their own art?

3. It’s being staged in a triangle.

Noll wanted to stage the play in the round, but the Evjue Stage wasn’t quite big enough to pull it off, so he’s improvising to come as close as possible. Each one of the audiences on the triangle’s side is meant to represent one of the three juries in the three trials. Other than that conceit, there’s virtually no set outside a judge’s bench and a few chairs. The ten-man cast will tackle forty-five different characters, so expect several costume changes, including a couple that will occur onstage.

So how would Wilde, one of the world’s first flamboyantly, publicly gay men, have reacted to a world in which gay marriage is finally legal?

“He would have had something witty to say,” says Noll. “Society has changed so much. At the same time, people can look at this play and think ‘people have changed so much. Well…not really.'”  

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde opens Friday, November 7, and runs through November 22. For more information, click here.