Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 15, 2001

Richard MacPherson, left, plays the flamboyant writer Oscar
Wilde in The Actors Group's production of "Gross Indecency:
The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." His co-stars, from left, are
David Starr, George Russell and Rick Crump.

TAG’s Wilde tale
puts society on trial

Review by John Berger

ANYONE interested in Oscar Wilde, or the moral and philosophical issues involved in his fall, will find The Actors Group's production of "Gross Indecency" worth seeing. Richard MacPherson's commanding portrayal of Wilde adds another memorable performance to his resume. Director Brad Powell embellishes the predictable progress of the lineal story with finely detailed ensemble work. That said, the TAG production seems one piece short of perfect. Maybe that's the intention.

Wilde was an successful author and playwright until he sued his boyfriend's father, the Marquess of Queensbury, for stating publicly that Wilde was posing as a "somdomite." Wilde's sexual behavior was not an issue at that point; he dropped his suit when it became clear that the Marquess was prepared to call as witnesses for the defense several young men who would testify that Wilde had paid them for sexual services.

But the Marquess continued to wreak vengeance on Wilde by seeing that he was prosecuted for "gross indecencies" -- the legal term used in late-Victorian England for male homosexual sex acts (the law did not recognize the possibility of similar relations between females.) The issue was no longer whether Wilde set an unsavory example for society, but whether he had broken the law by having sex with other men.

Even so, other issues percolated through the case. Wilde was a wealthy fortysomething man who was attracted to men 20 years younger. He disregarded the social norms of class-conscious England by choosing some of his boy toys from the lower classes. Was he using his wealth and position to corrupt impressionable young people?

The key witnesses against him were homosexual prostitutes; some of whom augmented their income by blackmailing wealthy gay men. At least one was found to have lied under oath about his activities. It took the government two trials to get a conviction. The proceedings destroyed Wilde professionally and financially. His home and property were sold at auction and many items disappeared in the process. He served two years in prison and never fully recovered from the experience. He died in Paris three years after his release.

MacPherson is excellent as Wilde, a master of the razor-sharp epigram which MacPherson delivers with panache. The wit and condescension wears thin in Act II as Wilde realizes his day in court isn't a classroom debate and that the authorities are dead serious about destroying him. It's MacPherson's depiction of Wilde's spiritual decline that confirms his stature as an actor.

The puzzle in the TAG production is Noah Johnson's portrayal of Wilde's boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas. Johnson, who did a stellar job as the romantic yet creepy Witch Boy in Hawaii Pacific University's recent staging of "Dark of the Moon," presents a very similar character here. It worked perfectly at HPU because there was supposed to be something a bit odd and unsettling about the Witch Boy. It doesn't work this time, unless the point is that Wilde threw his life and career away for someone who wasn't worth caring about.

Playwright Kaufman suggests early that Douglas flaunted his relationship with Wilde as another gambit in a long-running feud with his powerful father. The work of Johnson, MacPherson and director Powell certainly suggests that Wilde loved Douglas much more deeply than Douglas loved him. If that's historically accurate it makes Wilde's destruction a greater tragedy.

Kaufman also suggests that Wilde was tried a second time for political reasons. Either the government wanted to show that it wasn't soft on gays or else gays in the government wanted to prevent investigation of their own activities. David Starr joins TAG regulars Dave Schaeffer and George Russell Johnson in giving effective performances as the key figures in Wilde's libel suit. Schaeffer establishes himself as the designated villain of the piece with his portrayal of the cagey and inflexible Marquess.

Paul Niiyama, Todd Middleton and William Raye Street serve primarily to put the action in historical context by reading contemporary newspaper articles and theater reviews. The three stretch out as performers in Act 2 as they portray three gay hustlers who were used to build the case against Wilde. Each gives an entertaining performance in that scene; they also work well as an ensemble. George Russell Johnson returns in a second role as another of Wilde's boy toys. Rick Crump, Lani Hansen and Kim Warren complete the cast. 

Taken as history refracted through the prism of Kaufman's pen "Gross Indecency" is strong thought-provoking theater. The story is relevant beyond Wilde's life. It is all too easy for unpopular individuals or groups to be destroyed either by the costs of defending themselves in court or by easily manipulated public opinion. Not all victims of that scenario are as sympathetic as Wilde now is a century after the fact.

On stage

What: "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde"
Where: Yellow Brick Studio, 625 Keawe St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through July 8
Tickets: $10
Call: 591-7999

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