"I THINK it's more timely now than it was even when it was written," says director Jeremy Skidmore of a play that, when it debuted eight years ago, was already more than 100 years removed from its subject matter.
That play, at Theater Alliance, is "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," Moises Kaufman's acclaimed docu-drama about the Irish playwright, who in trials that began in 1895, was accused of -- and ultimately sent to jail for -- homosexual acts. ("Gross indecency" was the Victorian term for such activity. Curiously, women of the era had no corresponding prohibition.) Kaufman employed court transcripts; autobiographical works by Wilde's lover, lawyer and friends; and snippets of essays, poems, letters and plays by Wilde himself.
The impetus for his staging, Skidmore says, was "the idea that rather than this play being written by the playwright, it was created by this group of young men who had become fascinated by this moment in history." Bending the relationship among the playwright, actors and the characters they portray, Skidmore wanted the players, most of all, to seem like they're "a group of actors who pulled everything together. . . . It makes it more immediate."
While the Theater Alliance staging gives "Gross Indecency" an improvisational feel, Kaufman's message remains unambiguous: Wilde's treatment by the British government robbed the world of one of the greatest English-language writers since Shakespeare. The play in no way lionizes its protagonist, however. "Oscar Wilde wasn't perfect, and it doesn't try to make him look perfect," Skidmore says. In fact, central to the drama is how Wilde himself -- through his poor choices, arrogance and blind love for a young man -- was complicit in his own undoing. Despite, or perhaps because of, Wilde's self-destructive nature, Skidmore calls him "the rock star of his generation," and Theater Alliance's staging provides ample evidence for the claim.
Most of the actors are young, although dressed in period clothes -- three-piece suits, lots of tweed and floppy ties. Cooper D'Ambrose, 21, plays Wilde in a red waistcoat and velvet-trimmed jacket, which set off the single green carnation in his lapel that seems to wilt as Wilde himself loses hope. Playing up the "rock star" angle, electric guitar music blares between scenes and during intermission.
D'Ambrose is about half as old as Wilde was during the trials, his curly blond hair bringing to mind another tragic figure in the Kaufman canon: Matthew Shepard. "Other people brought up [the parallel] to me," says Skidmore of the gay college student whose brutal murder in 1998 was the subject of "The Laramie Project," Kaufman's 2000 play. "I hadn't thought about it at the time."
Yet Skidmore freely admits that his treatment of "Gross Indecency" was inspired by the monologues of "Laramie," which were taken from interviews conducted in and around the Wyoming town where the 21-year-old was murdered. "I felt like it was the direction Moises Kaufman was going with his work; he just hadn't gotten there yet."
One of the byproducts of this confessional approach, Skidmore says, is an evening "much more focused on the writing of Oscar Wilde." It's an appropriate choice, given that some of the most damning evidence in Wilde's trials came from his own writings, especially letters penned to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde's public writing, too, was turned against him, especially his 1891 novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," in which a man becomes entranced by the beautiful young title character. (It was in "Dorian Gray" that Wilde wrote: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.")
Notwithstanding its tragic overtones, Skidmore finds the play itself "to be very beautiful," a still-provocative work whose relevance is only heightened by Skidmore's in-your-face staging. Wilde's trial is one our society still faces, standing as both judge and jury over those who are victims and those who victimize. And while audience members may differ as to who is who, there's little doubt that Kaufman's play has an enduring ability to, as Skidmore puts it, "bring to life a very factual and devastating point in history."