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Oscar Wilde is on trial at The Hilberry

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Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

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Before playwright Moisés Kaufman developed his well-know “The Laramie Project,” he explored the institutionalized hypocrisy and bigotry that led to Oscar Wilde’s ultimate incarceration (and a sentence of two year’s hard labor) for the crime of homosexuality. The Hilberry Theatre’s production of Kaufman’s, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” uses nine actors playing multiple roles to offer a gripping historical account of the trials that brought Wilde’s career (and in short order, his life) to an abrupt end.

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Kaufman’s script is a brilliant arrangement of verbatim selections from the three different trials, embellished by the letters and writings Wilde composed in this time period, diaries and biographies written by friends and detractors, and newspaper headlines covering “the trial of the century.”

In the interest of full disclosure, we confess to being an unabashed Wilde fan who has made pilgrimages to informal shrines in Dublin and Paris that honor the great man. That said, this production should appeal to anyone who appreciates a finely paced courtroom drama. Modern audiences may learn something about the evolution of gay-identity issues and how Wilde’s highly publicized trial actually predated the use of the term “homosexual” as something one could “be” as opposed to something one “did.”

Most importantly, this play explores the themes that mattered most to Wilde, who championed the notion that an intellectual and spiritual appreciation of art has the power to elevate human beings above the muck and mire of our brutal natures. As he explained in the first trial, “In writing a play or a book, I am concerned entirely with literature—that is, with art. I aim not at doing good or evil, but in trying to make a thing that will have some quality of beauty.” The irony, of course, is that Wilde was a martyr to the cause of art for art’s sake, even while being condemned on charges of “gross indecency” by some of the grossest and most indecent rascals in London.

This compelling, well-paced Hilberry Theatre production is directed by Blair Anderson, PhD, and set entirely in London’s Old Bailey court room in 1895 (sharp scenic design by Sarah Pearline). As the play opens, Oscar Wilde (Topher Alan Payne) naively invites his own ruin by bringing a libel suit against the overbearing bully, the Marquess of Queensberry (Brent Griffith). Queensberry has accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite” and corrupting Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas (David Sterritt). Lord Alfred (himself a real piece of nasty work) is adored by Wilde and urges him to use the court to attack the despised father. Things backfire when Wilde loses his suit and the Crown prosecutes him for “gross indecency,” the polite Victorian euphemism for the act that every public school boy of the time knew as “buggery.”

The Hilberry cast does a fine job with this piece, especially considering that it’s a drama in which the action is intellectual and emotional; it is all about delivering and deciphering the words. Only Payne, as Oscar Wilde, plays the single role, which is refreshingly unaffected considering his subject. Sterritt, as Douglas, captures the young man’s self-absorbed nature while still letting us see how and why he could attract the great man’s affection. Griffith, as Queensberry, is convincing as the megalomaniacal Queensberry, and it’s fun to watch him leap into other roles, including one of the young men called to testify against Wilde.

Given the preponderance of male roles in this play, it is perhaps inevitable that the company should require its women to portray men. What is surprising is how well this comes off, with Annie Keris delivering a brilliantly thoughtful Sir Edward Clarke and Bevin Bell-Hall filled with gruff bluster as the judge.

The gifted cast of “Gross Indecency” includes: Alec Barbour (Carson, Narrator 5), Bevin Bell-Hall (Judge, Landlord, Mary Applegate, Mavor, Narrator 4, Queen Victoria, Speranza), Miles Boucher (Moises, Narrator 1, Price, Prostitute 44, Willi Wilde, Wood), Brandon Grantz (Antonio Migge, Auctioneer, Clerk of Arraigns, Parker, Harris, Narrator 3, Richards), Brent Griffith (Gill, Lockwood, Queensbury, Narrator 8), Annie Keris (Clarke, Constance Wilde, Ellen Grant, Hotel Manager, Narrator 6), Topher Alan Payne (Oscar Wilde), Brandy Joe Plambeck (Atkins, George Frederick Claridge, Marvin Taylor, Jurry Foreman, Narrator 2, Wright, u/s: Oscar Wilde), David Sterritt (Lord Alfred Douglas, Narrator 7).

This is a commanding production that continues to provoke relevant conversation; don’t miss it. “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” runs through March 22, 2014 in rotation with “A Doctor in Spite of Himself.” See the theatre calendar for details. Tickets range from $12–$30 and are available online, by calling (313) 577-2972, or by visiting the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock Street.

On the evening of January 16th John Corvino, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University, will take the stage at 7:15 p.m. for a discussion on themes central to the show. Corvino has written, debated, and lectured extensively on gay rights and believes that spirited dialogue is essential to convince the wider American public of both the merits of same-sex marriage and the moral acceptability of homosexuality.

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