Theater Review: GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE (Bent Theatre, Palm Springs)

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by Barry Schoenfeld on October 19, 2023

in Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley),Theater-Regional


In kicking off their second season, The Bent has again chosen to highlight an important issue of concern to the queer community, this time with a play by Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project, I Am My Own Wife, 33 Variations). The Bent fills an important niche in the Coachella Valley as the “premier LGBTQ+ theatre company.” It’s a blessing to have productions that don’t focus on frontal nudity or cheap jokes, so it’s a shame that this production falls short, but part of that is the script’s doing. Its subject is the litigation involving late-19th-century author Oscar Wilde, who was tried in British courts for having relations with young men deemed to fall into the category of the title, Gross Indecency,

Based entirely on facts, this fascinating yarn tells of the price Oscar Wilde paid for his status as an honest, outspoken gay man. It’s a courtroom drama that segues in and out of flashbacks, each word in the densely detailed script taken from news accounts, courtroom dockets, letters, memoirs and other “primary source” accounts. But Kaufman chooses to leave in a lot more than is probably necessary to make the play’s key points. Hence, a performance that stretches well over two hours needs paring down. In its current format, it’s a tough play to stay with all the time.

Three trials are covered: Wilde suing his lover’s father for libel, then becoming a twice-tried defendant. The rapt attention of the press and public made the trials the “O.J.” of their day. Kaufman refers to his sources by sometimes having actors read them verbatim. But we need more than direct quotes from so many contemporary sources.

Artistic Director of The Bent Steve Rosenbaum presents on a simple set wonderful projections that keep the rather didactic action moving. A Greek Chorus of sorts plays the multiple narrators and smaller roles, all costumed nicely by Cherlyn Lanning in pure white, often with black bowler hats. Or was Rosenbaum’s intent to give us a commedia dell’ arte staging of sorts, having characters representing different social statuses as a comment on British social structure in a satirical, comedic way?

It was hard to tell, and that often interrupted the flow of the action, in part because the range of acting styles varied widely – from stand-up to commentators to circus performers. And at the proscenium Camelot Theatre, which also shows films, lines were muffled when actors spoke directly to the wings. And being the second weekend of performances, a large number of flubbed lines from many of the actors took us out of the action as well. Unfortunately, none of the performers seemed to “inhabit” their characters, with the exception of Jason Mannino, an actor with a remarkably expressive face even when not speaking as Oscar Wilde. Also noteworthy is Alex Price, who projected as Lord Alfred Douglas both his tender relationship with Wilde and his outrage at the proceedings.

This is a daring effort by a brave new company, obviously committed to unique and important work. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde tells a historically vital and profoundly pertinent story that challenges the audience to think about art, aesthetics, and more importantly the legislation of love.

Cast: Brent Anderson, Melanie Blue, Tony Bradford, Kai Brothers, Stan Jenson, Barbara Kerr, Willie Mullins, and Koby Queenen.

photos courtesy of The Bent

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde
The Bent Theatre
in association with The Palm Springs Cultural Center
Camelot Theatres, 2300 East Baristo Road in Palm Springs
Thurs-Sat at 7; Sun at 2
ends on October 28, 2023
for tickets, visit The Bent or Eventbrite

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