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As Sean Yael-Cox, Artistic Director of Intrepid Shakespeare, prepares to direct the company’s upcoming staged reading on Monday evening at the Encinitas Library, one question keeps reverberating in his mind:
“Why isn’t this play performed more often?”
The play in question is Moisés Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which will be presented by a stellar cast of San Diego heavies, among them Tom Hall as Oscar Wilde and Jim Chovick as the Marquess of Queensberry.
“It feels incredibly timely and appropriate to look at this play now because it’s about human rights,” says Sean, citing the recent waves of political change with regards to equality. “It’s a strong play to do now.”
Kaufman’s play, assembled in a docu-drama style which lifts direct quotations from historical documents, personal letters, and creative work, follows the later years of playwright Oscar Wilde as he undergoes three lawsuits in England – one which he initiates in order to rebuke a slanderous statement made against him by the Marquess of Queensberry, and two others initiated by the government on the charges of “gross indecency” between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the Marquess’ son.
“A lot of people don’t know what happened to Wilde and how it ended for him,” comments Sean. “I think it says something about his writing that he is known for his wit and his charm and not remembered for the trials.”
Charged with the task of portraying Oscar Wilde is Tom Hall, most recently seen in Intrepid’s production of Hamlet as Horatio. Even though Tom describes the role as “very challenging and very daunting,” he is thankful that the authentic words of Wilde are there to provide a foundation for his real life character.
“You get a strong sense of who he was and how he carried himself through his writing,” says Tom. “Wilde wasn’t just a person. He’s a personality.”
Also recreating an historical figure is Jim Chovick, who will be portraying the Marquess as well as two different prosecuting attorneys in the reading.
“The Marquess of Queensbury is the nemesis,” says Jim, also last seen in Intrepid’s Hamlet as the Ghost. “He’s rather rough and strong arms his way through life.”
What lends credibility to these characters is that their conversations are almost entirely created from historical record, and Kaufman manages to investigate the trials with a modern perspective while maintaining the integrity of the people involved.
“It’s like a crash course history lesson, but it’s incredibly theatrical,” says Sean, who will also take a turn on stage during the reading. “It’s almost like doing an Oscar Wilde play because there are so many excerpts from his writing. It’s the beautiful poetry and a ton of humor.”
Sadly, it is the creative writings of Wilde that are also used as evidence against him when he is put on trial for his “illegal” activities with Douglas. Tom notes that because of this, it is not the actual relationship between the men that ends up under the microscope. It is Wilde’s struggle for artistic expression.
“He was really being tried for his subversive views on art, morality, and Victorian society,” says Tom. “Wilde believed in the power of art to transform man. He believed that art could change the world, could bring about peace, and all of these ideas that were revolutionary for his time.”
Jim agrees. “The playwright knew what he was doing,” he says. “Wilde isn’t defending his actions, he’s saying I’m an artist and art rises above these petty little rules.”
This “rule” that Wilde was ultimately found guilty of was “gross indecency” between males, and while the term was never clearly defined by Parliament, it was used to criminalize homosexuality in Victorian England. It was not repealed until 1967.
The somewhat didactic nature of this play should not be intimidating, however. Anyone familiar with Kaufman’s The Laramie Project will understand his unique ability to take facts and weave them into a compelling narrative.
“The best kind of play is one that will move you emotionally and educate you,” says Jim. “Anything that is well-written will resonate. It’s human nature.”
Rounding out the cast of historical figures is Brian Rickel, Danny Campbell (most recently seen as Polonius in Hamlet), as well as John Tessmer, Ben Cole, and Edred Utomi who are all currently acting in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the musical, which closes on Intrepid’s mainstage on Sunday.
— Tiffany Tang
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisés Kaufman, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, August 19. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to email@example.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15.