Imagine Oscar Wilde, the man who practically invented epigrams (the antiquated version of a verbal burn), standing trial, and being bullied into reframing his aestheticism in to something callous and ugly for the sake of naming what he was, a gay man, or as the author of Reading Wilde Marvin Taylor (played by Johnard Washington) declares in his recounting of the trials, a homosexual. More than Wilde, the ethics of homosexuality itself were on trial for the first time in Victorian England, and if anyone could defend it with grace and aplomb, it would be Wilde. The trouble was, he had one hand tied behind his back, as he was unable to admit to being a homosexual, because it was illegal, and by doing so he would be likely to ruin not just the reputation of his love interest (Lord Alfred Douglas), but also to risk his thriving career as an author and playwright, and even his freedom from incarceration.
So begins this catch-22 of a play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a remount of the very same play produced by Promethean Theatre in 2016, and reviewed then by Third Coast Review’s editor Nancy Bishop.
The set was a sound mish mosh of seating in the center with a throne/witness stand especially for Wilde, and bench seating on the sides for witnesses and audience members (aka the jury). In this tight space, and without ever really leaving the courtroom scene, the ensemble of Prometheans were able to conjure up romantic letter writing in boudoirs, modern talk show interviews, and father-son telegram beat downs. All done using primary source (letters, telegrams, poems) and documentary material that has been published, and sometimes even unpublished, on the topic. Director Brian Pastor seems to favor contrasting elements anachronistically, even going so far as to mix and match some history to point us to some thematic similarities through the ages.
Perhaps the best twist of the production, second only to the punk rock costumes (designed by Uriel Gómez), is the casting of female leads to play the lead male parts (and some of the other parts as well). In fact, apart from the leads Wilde (played again by Jamie Bragg) and Lord Alfred Douglas (played by Heather Kae Smith), the ensemble cast rotated through various roles with rapid fire precision, switching accents and body language with wicked deftness, sometimes throwing down a cockney accent to indicate a working-class dalliance of Wilde’s and sometimes climbing up on the aristocratic pulpit to pontificate about Victorian-era morals. One ensemble member in particular, Kat Evans, stood out as adding some much-needed movement to the play and embodying each of her characters with a real physical presence.
But the solid, calm heart of the play was Wilde, sometimes foppish and silver-tongued, other times stripped raw and bleeding vulnerability. Jamie Bragg’s rendition of Wilde was astonishingly deep and soulful, a surprise indeed when you think of the quips Wilde can use at will as his shield or weapon: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars,” and “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” For Bragg, it is all in the eyes, saying what she says and still showing the soft underbelly of ‘himself’—it’s a balancing act whose poignancy reminds each of us of our own fronts and weaknesses.
It can be difficult to separate Wilde’s penchant for young men, and his willingness to gift them cigarette cases (and sometimes money) by way of thanks for their courtship, from his views on liberty and freedom of expression without feeling a little more ‘in the gutter.’ But openly gay relationships were heavily frowned upon at the time, leaving few options for a person wishing to find a sexual partner. And Wilde’s relationship with Bosie (Lord Alfred) is what redeems him in the end, showing him to be capable of his own ideals—love and beauty.
In the theater company’s press release, the cast is described as ‘gender blind’ and cross-gendered. But the effect of such choices has a welcome normalizing impact on the gender-seeing world, and it is one that inspires introspection. Wilde himself, a foppish man by all accounts, played with gender constructs in his presentation as well as his literature. While he certainly never uttered the term gender fuck, he surely understood the spirit behind the phrase. For a man otherwise obsessed with beauty, he has a lot to say on disruption. “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
Casting a woman in the role of Wilde is a sort of disruption of expectations in itself—one where Wilde’s effeminate gestures suddenly come to light as natural—or something between male and female—not quite one or the other, and not quite definable, like gender itself. It is especially meaningful that this play was remounted at this point in history, when the discourse on gender has developed to the point it is at, where the power dynamics of privilege–of men, white and aristocratic to boot, are being called to the carpet. Class and privilege are touched upon in the play, as Wilde himself shocks and dismays the court by purporting to be class blind, preferring the company of lively people above all else. “It’s absurd to divide people into good or bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Director Pastor explained his motivation on the casting choice, saying that it broadened the plays message. “Gross Indecency is still, and will always be, a play for the LGBT community: an examination of an early gay icon. But, at its core, this is a play about being one’s self; and, frankly, about whether or not the government, society, or anyone else has the right to tell us if that’s okay.”
This 140-minute play, which delves in to characters of history by exploring class and gender through the lens of the morality of the times is anything but tedious. Delightfully modern and sinfully Victorian, it invites us to consider how far we have or have not come in the ensuing 100-plus years as a society, and it does so charmingly, just as Wilde would have wanted it.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde presented by Promethean Theatre Ensemble will be at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, until March 23, with tickets ranging from $15-$30.