Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
2.5 out of 4
I have never been to a real trial. I also don’t find myself making much of an effort to watch trials on television. So, I don’t have much context to compare Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde to. I really only bring it up because of how tedious the production felt. The story and the facts presented were fascinating, but the staging and pacing dragged the interesting concept into the ground.
The play follows, well, three trials of Oscar Wilde. Wilde (played here by Jamie Bragg—more on that later), first went to trial to accuse the Marquess of Queensbury of defamation. This ill-advised trip to the courtroom opened a can of worms that Wilde was never able to close. The play features text from trial transcripts, newspaper, journals, interviews, and other documents from the time as it follows the stripping down of a renowned artist. Occasionally these documents are acted out while other times the facts are simply stated as such.
Which brings me to the staging of this play. It’s set up with Wilde upstage center, nonchalantly in his chair on his platform, flanked by his attorney to his right and the opposition to his left. The other actors sit in chairs against the walls of the stage and stand to deliver individual interjections and news clippings. The show really doesn’t move much from these positions. There are the occasional variations with some scenes being partially played out (not full set changes, but actors interacting as if from a partial flashback), but for the most part, people are planted in place. It’s just not a visually interesting show.
Liz Sutherland’s lighting design is a clear attempt to spice up an otherwise dull stage picture, but it was unable to match the style that director Brian Pastor and playwright Moises Kaufman were going for. It wasn’t crisp. It lagged. Sure some of that could be attributed to the instruments or the way the show is called, but stylistically it didn’t match the quick smash-cuts of the direction and script. In general, the production seemed to lack the urgency the script needed. For two trials, it felt like the actors were almost there, but that completely fell away in the third trial. It was a very deliberate take on what should have been snappy interjecting lines of dialogue. It took away from the effect of the numerous accusations against Wilde building up and tearing Wilde down, which, in turn, hurt the end of the play.
That being said, Bragg’s Wilde was fantastic. Her easy confidence leading to over confidence developing into a slip of the tongue and a slow painful downfall was absolutely phenomenal. She was easily the best actor on stage followed closely by Heather Smith playing Wilde’s ‘close’ friend Lord Alfred Douglas. Now, both of these characters (and a few others) are men played by women (there’s also a woman or two played by a man, but it’s significantly less common). I’m not sure if they were attempting to infuse the production with some larger message by doing gender blind casting, but if they were, it wasn’t clear. It mostly looked like they put the best actors in place to devour these great roles and that was incredibly effective. Steve Lords’ performance is also of note as he was hilarious at with every character he played.
I’m making it seem like this is a bad show. It’s not. It really isn’t. It’s long, it’s a bit too drawn out, and it missed the pacing for the end. But Bragg, Smith, and Lords are stars and are given some really enthralling material to work with. Their performances are the highlights here and that’s possibly why the staging is minimal. But, that minimalism just isn’t anything worth the attention of an audience visually and three actors can’t hold up a cast of a dozen. Wilde’s life took a lot of turns and these trials are widely (rightfully) discussed. As a place to see all of the information in one place, this show is perfect. As a form of entertainment for three hours, it struggles.
Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production of Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde runs through December 18th. Performances are at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago. Tickets can be found by visiting www.brownpapertickets.com/event/262.... More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.