Encore Michigan

STI’s ‘Gross Indecency’ honors Oscar Wilde and Pride Month

Review June 09, 2019 Patrice Nolan

FERNDALE, Mich.—Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, by Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project), is Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s moving contribution to Pride Month.

Kaufman’s script is so much more fascinating, juicy, witty and heartbreaking than any courtroom drama has a right to be. This makes sense when we consider that Oscar Wilde himself was the most delightfully over-the-top playwright, poet, novelist and raconteur known to Victorian London. Even from the dock at Bow Street, his words lend buoyancy to the moment.

Of course, anyone remotely familiar with Oscar Wilde’s story knows that this play will not end happily. Gross Indecency recounts the courtroom events (based on actual transcripts and newspapers of the day) that led to Wilde’s conviction for the crime of having sex with men. The sentence was two years hard labor. He was released a broken and destitute man and died in exile three years later. His wife and his mother died while he was in prison. He never saw his beloved sons again.

Today, Wilde is seen by many as a martyr for LGBTQ rights and, on a larger scale, as the patron saint of all whose ideas and art challenge the status quo. [EncoreMichigan’s annual awards honoring theaters, productions and performances is named for Oscar Wilde].

In this unique Slipstream production, co-directed by Bailey Boudreau and Luna Alexander, Wilde is recognized as a loving father who esteemed the innocence of childhood and sought to impart timeless moral lessons to the next generation. This advice is passed along in his children’s books, his epigrams on art and beauty, and in his misplaced belief that truth will triumph over hypocrisy. In contrast, the other father in this play, the Marquis of Queensberry, threatens to thrash his son “Bosie” and cut him off without a penny. He publicly humiliates his son while claiming the high moral ground of a father trying to protect his son from Wilde’s “unnatural” advances.

In many ways, Oscar Wilde’s undoing can be blamed on both Bosie and his brutish father. Oscar was besotted with Bosie and unwittingly became the club that father and son used to bash each other. It was Bosie who urged Wilde to initiate a libel suit against Queensberry. It was Bosie who urged Oscar to remain in London and make a stand when he could have easily escaped to Europe. In the end, Oscar was trapped by political expedience; he became the scapegoat for a government that needed to appear tough on gross indecency, all while overlooking the homosexual practices that were ubiquitous in England from public schools to the House of Lords.

True to Slipstream’s modus operandi, this production moves away from the traditional vision and staging. Here, the courtroom has been replaced with a surreal set suggesting a sort of urban playground—again, leaning into the themes of childhood, but assuming dark overtones.  Likewise, the actors do not assume British or Irish accents, which for local audiences may make the play more accessible, while underscoring the notion that this story is universal in its themes.   

As the play opens, a boy is trying to read from the book of fairytales that Wilde wrote for his own small sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. The other characters taunt and mock the child, and together they all spill onto the stage and remain there. This mob assumes the role of a rowdy chorus—a mash-up of Commedia dell’arte zanni and extras from a Monte Python film. Each actor takes on multiple roles (per Kaufman’s script), but when they are not in character, they resort to their own unruly, disrespectful behavior. This extra layer of stage business adds immeasurably to the entertainment value of the play—it’s fun to watch the actors watch the story as it unfolds. They mumble retorts, roll their eyes, gag at the romantic inuendo, and swipe props from each other. More significantly, this device dramatizes the emotional abuse Wilde was subjected to. Near the play’s end, the characters begin shouting various disparaging headlines and bits of testamony, he is overwhelmed by a cacophony of ugly sound. As Wilde wilts in the defendant’s box, it is clear that Art, Beauty and Love are on trial here, and the judges are Fear, Hypocrisy and Ignorance.

The role of Oscar Wilde is played by the incomparable Richard Payton, who offers an appropriately subdued, dignified portrayal of Wilde as he faces his accusers. He pointedly delivers some of his best lines directly to Caleb Biber-Welser, the young boy who carries Wilde’s fairy tales and also serves as the primary Narrator. Jackson Abohasira plays Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in a manner that is surprisingly sympathetic. Historically, Bosie proved to be a self-absorbed enfant terrible, but considering everything he learned from his own father, perhaps we are being asked to give him a pass. Patrick O’Lear is the Marquess of Queensberry, a buffoon who believes in his own righteous indignation. Tiaja Sabrie performs both as Carson, the first prosecutor, and as Wilde’s wife Constance. The cast also includes Alanna Elling (Gil, the second prosecutor, and others), Patrick Flanagan (Wilde’s attorney, Clark), Slipstream artistic director Bailey Boudreau (George Bernard Shaw and others), and Rachel Biber (Frank Harris, Wilde’s confidante, and others). Alanna Elling serves as assistant director. Costumes are by Tiaja Sabrie, with set and lights by Jackson Abohasira. Grace Trivax is Stage Manager.

This is a fascinating and historically accurate play that is rewarding on many levels. The irony inherent in Gross Indecency, of course, is that Wilde was pilloried as a “corruptor of youth” by hypocritical philistines led by a drunk who beat his own wife and children. The law was on his side. Aristocracy was on his side. History was not.

This Slipstream Theatre Production makes its moral crystal clear: when we let our government leaders excoriate a vulnerable group of “others,” and when we allow them to play upon the fears of the masses, we ultimately imperil our own civil liberties. It’s a lesson we eventually learn too late.

Read more about Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde 06/07–06/30 Read more about Slipstream Theatre Initiative