By guest reviewer YONATAN REINBERG
The all-male cast in The Shadow Company’s performance of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, by playwright Moisés Kaufman, play a variety of characters from prostitutes to queens, lovers to judges, press to persecutors. As the clever plot device played by a rascally professor makes clear, however, the play doesn’t shade these characters into one another to shed light on the scourge of gender roles that encourage clear distinctions between gay and straight, and thereby criminalize the former. This, we may all assume, is well understood by the audience.
Rather, these characters are principally concerned with exposing what we as a society cherish as private, and what we give up in our social contracts (and informal obligations) to the public good. When we write a beautiful book followed by a beautiful letter, which is considered to be a private expression – and which a factual statement about others? From what do I profit, both emotionally and financially, and what do I hide, even when both capably speak truths about myself in the world?
At a time when Bradley Manning is raked over the coals for sharing the “dehumanizing” events he witnessed, when filming animal farms is criminalized, and vacant eyes on university boards across the country annihilate public university funding, the distinction between what belongs to us, and what belongs to the individual, is more important than ever.
Played with gorgeous, hair-tossing affect by Craig Johnson, Wilde comes off not as protagonist in the art he so feverously seeks, but the ghostly after effect: the numerous swirling characters serve to undermine the idea of a fixed character moving through time. Instead we see the construction of Wilde as representative of Art itself, as the blurred boundary between what is seen as the free reign of the state and what remains in the privy of individuals.
The play’s own words underscore this boundary: the Marquess of Queensberry (played with delicious scowling by James Tucker) wins his first trial by insisting that his accusation of Wilde as a “posing sodomite” remain in the “public property.” Wilde’s astonishment that he can no longer remain in control of what is public woefully undermines his history-lovin’ fetishization of Art as an eternal, noble quest. If the News of the World newspaper is Art to some, if the complex, intertwined histories of legal philosophy and doctrine is Art to others, why is it that Wilde’s “Art” remains nobler?
The answer, of course, is that – as our Foucauldian chorus academically intones – Wilde’s public/private divide hinged on more than just Art: It was a divide speaking volumes about nascent gender categories, class distinctions, and Protestant ethics. If Foucault warned us that to speak openly about something was only to subject it to more control, what do Wilde’s feverish desires to go to trial say about his view of Art as a tool that could bridge public and private?
Under the direction of Amy Rummenie the cast’s beautiful use of bodily performance served as a welcome foil to what could have been a finger-wagging morality tale. The rotation of accents and affects could not have been done better – it was simply amazing to see the ease with which they juggled cockney, George Bernard Shaw’s swarthy Irish, and all the rest. Similarly, the sensuality and frequency of bare skin (though I did wonder how they wore underwear in that cold theater) stood in stark contrast to the dessicated powdered wigs of Justice.
The spare use of props as tools that close and open possibilities – gavels, books, and prisoners’ stands – encouraged in the audience an examination of Art as a tool and not merely an abstract goal. Like the apps on our phone that are at once both helpful tools and points of privacy intervention and control, anything can be foreclosed from the private into the public. The trial that remains before us, then, becomes: when do these tools endeavor a noble effort, and when a nefarious?
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, by Moisés Kaufman. Directed by Amy Rummenie. Set design by Steve Kath. Walking Shadow Theatre Company playing at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 West Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, April 12 – May 4, 2013. Tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com. Information at www.walkingshadowcompany.org