Sad, sad song

Perhaps the biggest deficiency of Dallas theater is the tendency to cast performers against type. The pool of committed actors in this town is small, and chances are if you think so-and-so would be just perfect for this role, he or she is already working in someone else's production. Sometimes choosing a less appropriate actor results in a wonderful revelation; there are few pleasures more exciting than having a performer argue you out of your negative preconceptions with an insightful performance. But sometimes it just results in an acute case of miscasting, which can prove mildly distracting or fatally annoying. Having a nationally famous drama program like Southern Methodist University's helps restock the pond, but even so, you can run into problems with a 25-year-old Lady Bracknell or a Krapp with lingering adolescent acne.

Generally speaking, my attitude is this is theater, folks: If you are talented and disciplined enough to find some truth in a part that is 100 percent unlike you in type and temperament, then I'll surrender my disbelief. Hell, I'm already sitting in a church or a basement pretending that the comic and tragic lives unfolding on stage are real (whatever that means).

All this talk is by way of introduction to what can happen during the reverse, when a show is full of perfect marriages between actor and role: The production rolls onto the scene with the force of a thunderhead. Theatre Quorum's staging of Serenading Louie, the Dallas premiere of Lanford Wilson's very bleak drama of marital disintegration, is as seamless a show as I've seen in a long time. That sounds like faint praise, until you see this startling production and realize there is nothing that you, as a theatergoer, must ignore or compensate for: No wrinkles, no faded spots, no rips, no stains are evident in this vivid portrait of four successful middle-aged people shipwrecked on the jagged rocks of infidelity.

The four actors hand you their performances like big, colorfully wrapped boxes: Open them, and inside you find tangled emotions and failed good intentions and thwarted best efforts. The paradoxical beauty of theater is that the better the sorry flotsam and jetsam of our lives is captured, the more energized and purified we feel. It's the same for anyone who has an intimate relationship with the blues. When I listen to Bessie Smith sing, she is singing for all the heavy sins of my life, and I could float away like a hummingbird. When I watched the sublime cast of Serenading Louie play characters who face grave failings in themselves and their spouses, I had to hang on to my seat to keep from levitating.

Of course, director Cynthia Hestand deserves much credit, both for the very personal, poignant performances she coaxed out of her actors and for keeping Lanford Wilson's script at the back of her mind all these years. The play may be more than 23 years old, but there is no statute of limitations on the kind of sorrow it renders with a gentle touch.

Anybody who's ever been in a relationship that's nosediving, but is too afraid to admit it, will recognize Gabby (Angela Wilson), the insecure wife who must chatter constantly to keep the ominous silence at bay. Or Mary (Cindee Mayfield), the confident and charming spouse who's hidden her discontent so long behind a well-groomed cool, she's starting to freeze to death. Have you ever looked around and found yourself alienated from your mate to the point where his or her touch repulses you? Then you've been in the shoes of Gabby's husband, Alex (Dennis Millegan), a Washington, D.C., lawyer who's pondering an appointment to high office--that is, pondering whether Gabby will come along with him to that appointment.

How about loving someone with an unreasonable intensity that turns to desperation when you discover that same someone is cheating on you? Then you'll recognize Mary's husband, Carl (Carl Savering), the self-made construction developer who finds a terrible solution you hopefully won't relate to.

If Mayfield, Millegan, Savering, and Wilson were a classical quartet, they'd be playing the storm-dark strains of Shostakovich in a household concert. As it is, with their shimmering talents pooled into an acting ensemble, they prove that theater is as liquid and purely emotional an art form as music. Don't you dare miss Serenading Louie. After this weekend, all those sad, lovely notes will fade away.

Serenading Louie runs through March 27. Call (972) 216-8131.

Ooh, baby, it's a Wilde world
It seems unlikely that anyone who has an interest in seeing Theatre Three's Southwest premiere of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde would be a rabid homophobe. You suspect the injustice of Wilde's 1895 conviction and hard-labor imprisonment for the "gross indecency of sodomy" has already been recognized by most audience members before the house lights go down. Not that this kind of in-crowd sympathy translates to real social change--just ask the three consenting adult males who were imprisoned, convicted, and fined on sodomy charges last year in Houston. But it can make for an evening of smothering self-congratulation in the theater when people believe they are striking a blow for a progressive cause simply by paying 20 bucks to see a play about persecution.

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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