THEATRE REVIEW: GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE

Players by the Sea and the law office of Christina Parrish present “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” which opened January 9, 2014 and will remain on stage in the Studio Theater through January 24. Oscar Wilde was a man of letters and a master playwright, and likewise, playwright Moisés Kaufman’s play about Wilde’s trials is an example of superb writing. The Dual Critics admit to being lost when it comes to finding words as eloquent as those used by Kaufman and Wilde to apply to this review.

“Gross Indecency” was quite the Off-Off-Broadway season hit in 1997; the in play for viewing by theatre aficionados. The play begins in the spring of 1895, at the point in Wilde’s life when he is tremendously successful as a novelist and playwright. The Marquess of Queensbery (Roger Lowe) leaves a business card at Wilde’s club calling him a sodomite, due to his relationship with Alfred Douglas (Daniel Austin), his young son.

Wilde, instead of ignoring the card and at the urging of Douglas, sues Queensberry for libel. When the defense team sets out to prove that Queensberry’s accusation is based on Wilde’s behavior and character, his private life and his homosexuality come to light. The case against Queensberry is lost and Wilde becomes the defendant in two subsequent government trials

Act One covers the first trial and is fast paced, almost at breakneck speed, as a chorus of barristers and reporters inform us of the trial events as seen by the world, based on relevant period documents.

Act Two, which proceeds at a more measured pace, covers the second and third trials, and includes the startling testimony of five young male prostitutes. Wilde’s books and writings are cited as evidence against him by the prosecution, and he is found guilty of “gross indecency” under the British Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1855. He is sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor; he is stripped of his possessions; his wife changes her name and takes their two children to the Continent; his plays are banned.

Ron Shreve, Production Manager and Set Designer, uses chairs and desks, covered with various reference books and articles about Wilde, for the barristers, reporters, and witnesses.

Jane Mild Laroque, the costume designer, has captured the English fashions of the late nineteenth century with her wardrobe creations, including wigs for the barristers and judges. Wilde, who loved clothes, was decked out in somewhat flamboyant style during the first act, and wore a black suit and open collared white shirt in the final act.

Director Dave Alan Thomas has assembled an absolutely perfect cast of seven men and two women who are indeed very versatile as they take on the roles of many people in small vignettes. The men include Ricky Watson, Noah Bennett, Kevin Bodge, and the previously mentioned Roger Lowe and Daniel Austin. This play is usually performed with men only, but Mr. Thomas has done some inspired casting with Kelby Siddons and Karen Overstreet, who are equally outstanding in several men’s parts, which include that of a defense attorney and a presiding judge.

Bill Ratliff’s performance as Oscar Wilde is a tour de force, and he brilliantly captures every nuance of this complex playwright and his rapid fall from the pinnacle of fame. A winner of many acting awards locally over the years, Ratliff is especially gifted at playing famous personages like the painter Rothko, the composer Salieri, and in a lighter vein, the monster in “Young Frankenstein,” and Brother Boy in “Sordid Lives.”

Playwright Moisés Kaufman did a magnificent job of researching and bringing to life the story of this gifted playwright, author and poet. The play is riveting and thought-provoking, and and as we drove home, I wondered how the literary world might have been changed if Wilde had escaped to France, as his friends advised, while he was out on bail between his second and third trial, rather than stubbornly insisting on facing a court determined to send him to prison.

This play should be of particular interest to Jacksonville audiences, in view of recent changes in society’s attitudes and laws related to the sexual preferences of individuals. Additionally, Wilde’s plays have entertained Jacksonville theatre audiences for years. His brilliant “The Importance of Being Ernest” has been produced by a number of local theatres, as has “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” “The Picture of Dorian Gray” remains a popular novel and the 1945 movie with George Sanders, Angela Lansbury, and Peter Lawford is still shown on cable channels.

Also, this is the play that launched the career of former Jacksonville actor Michel Emerson. Michael did the role of Wilde in the New York production and received excellent reviews and a door-opening opportunity. He is currently involved in starring in “Person of Interest,” a popular CBS series.

Additional members of the Creative Team include: Stage Managers Laurel Wilson and Gayle Featheringill, Assistant Stage Manager Livia Wilson, Lighting Designer Jim Wiggins, Assistant Light Designer Spencer Baldwin, Sound Designer Dave Allen Thomas, Poster Artwork Kurtis Loftus, and Program Designer Bradley Akers.

“Gross Indecency” is an absolute must see for serious students of theatre, Oscar Wilde fans, and all those who appreciate exceptional acting. For reservations, call 249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.
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