Sad, sad song

Theatre Quorum makes beautiful music in Serenading Louie

I'm pleased to report that neither Moises Kaufman's internationally successful script nor director Jac Alder's clipped, reserved staging wastes a lot of time petitioning us for our empathy toward gay travails. And the supremely arrogant, lethally learned Wilde is hardly a mass-media-ready symbol of victimization--at least, not until his penniless, illness- and infamy-ridden final days.

Which brings me to the curious substance of Gross Indecency, a two-act play composed almost entirely of sources not written by the playwright. Kaufman has knitted together excerpts from Wilde's writings, his court testimony, the testimony and autobiography of his young lover Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, scholarly studies, and news stories. The footnotes identifying the sources become lines spoken by seven narrators, prefacing each excerpt. For years now, practitioners of "testimonial theater" like Emily Mann and Anna Deveare Smith have taken words from interviews and the public record and turned them into dialogue, but the sheer variety of viewpoints in Gross Indecency makes it feel like an especially relevant kind of theater in the age of C-SPAN, CNN satellite clips, and the text links that connect various informational sites on the Web.

It is not, however, an emotionally engaging kind of theater. Director Alder has intensified this detached quality by eliciting performances from nine actors that seem, during the first act, flat and declarative.

As most of the action takes place during the three trials it took to secure a sodomy conviction against Wilde, this is perhaps to be expected. But it takes a while for this production's slow, precise surgeon's hands to work on you. And during the chatty interim, you spend time thinking that Terry Vandivort--a small, sharp-nosed fellow--has been miscast both in age and physical type for his role as Wilde. But once Vandivort starts slinging those priceless, sometimes antagonistic epigrams on the stand, the show begins to generate some heat. Vandivort may be small, but he nails Wilde's haughty Goliath's-eye view. Because of this, you understand it wasn't just revulsion at the thought of sodomy with young Oxford student Bosie (Dwight Sandell, also too old for his part and not nearly as frisky as Vandivort) that made Bosie's father, the abusive Marquess of Queensberry (Gordan Fox), reach for the slingshot; the Marquess was just as outraged that the giant sodomite could out-talk and out-think him at every turn.

Of course, Wilde was the one who foolishly ran to the courts with a libel suit when the Marquess declared him guilty of "sodomy" at a social club to which they both belonged. This is the first trial of the three in the play's title, and it opened the door onto the public gallows, where Wilde was hung on a noose woven of his own expositions on male beauty and the uselessness of morality and the supremacy of pleasure.

That all these premises were based on a foundation of secular spirituality--the soulful Wilde simply believed that art, not God, was the savior of man--infuriated Anglican and Catholic moralists. And that Wilde was a supremely cultured man who ignored class distinctions in Victorian England, hanging out with prostitutes and coal miners, was even more abhorrent.

The amazing and edifying complexity of issues that converge in Gross Indecency kick in hard by the second act, so that Jac Alder and his cast would have to work hard to screw this material up. Several of them shine, especially Mark Shum, who makes a dandy cockney hustler brought in to testify about Wilde's patronage, and Thomas Walker, whose clipped nasal delivery works well for both another prostitute and George Bernard Shaw, a heterosexual who emerges here as an early (1895!) and eloquent crusader for gay legitimacy.

Dwight Sandell, who'd disappointed as Bosie, comes back utterly unrecognizable (and much better suited) as a dweebish scholar who reminds the audience that before Wilde's trial, there was such a thing as homosexuality--meaning acts of same-sex congress--but not homosexuals. It's a subtle but profound difference. Wilde might have resisted much contemporary gay-rights rhetoric, because he refused to see himself as a type of person defined by his romantic inclinations.

Theatre Three's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar can be cold, but it's ultimately compelling. By the time the actors recite Wilde's haunting, post-trial prose poem "House of Judgment" at the play's close--the most lyrical distillation of his belief in the redemptive power of the imagination--you may find goosebumps on your arms.

Down through the 20th century, the ubiquity of Wilde's sensibility has redeemed him after his ignoble death, which occurred several years after an ill-treated prison injury. Wilde himself would surely have found gratuitous pleas on his part vulgar and wasteful; he might even have considered the fragmented real-life reflection of Moises Kaufman's documentary approach anti-art. Still, the stately Gross Indecency never complains, it just explains--in a calm, carefully selected series of voices.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde runs through April 3. Call (214) 871-3300.

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