In 1895, when N.C. State University Theatre’s collegiate production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is set, Oscar Wilde was at the pinnacle of his fame. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) was well received, and his work had met with critical acclaim. Two of his plays, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and An Ideal Husband (1895), were opening in London.
Wilde was just as well known for his eccentric style and manners as he was for his quick wit. Although married with two children, Oscar Wilde was frequently found in the company of young men, and this had raised eyebrows in an era unaccustomed to discussing homosexuality. In fact, we learn from this 1997 Off-Broadway play by Moisés Kaufman that the term “homosexual” had not been coined yet, and engaging in homosexual acts was a crime. Wilde, it seems, felt somewhat protected by his fame; and he lived his life by his own rules, ignoring the possibility of a scandal.
In those days, visitors to your home or business would leave a card bearing their name to let you know that they had stopped by. The angry father of one of Wilde’s young lovers left such a card at Wilde’s club signed, “To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].” Incensed, Wilde sued him for libel. This turned out to be a rookie error, because in defending the suit, all of the shocking details of Wilde’s lifestyle emerged and were discussed in public. Oscar Wilde would lose the libel suit, and thereafter be charged criminally for what was then considered gross indecency with men.
This is where the play Gross Indecency starts. Through the use of trial transcripts, interviews, personal correspondence, and other source materials, the play tells the story of Wilde’s downfall. The play is timely given North Carolina’s current discussion of transgender issues and the worldwide fallout caused by our politicians’ attempts to legislate bathroom practices.
The N.C. State University Theatre set was designed beautifully by Alec Haklar, one of many students who were involved with the production from the start. Center stage is a long wooden table that is both stage, platform, and courtroom. Cleverly, some of the audience seating is onstage in what appear to be jury boxes. This effectively draws the audience members into the action just as the public was drawn into the story during Wilde’s trial.
As a nod to both the prolific writing and the letters that would bring Wilde fame and then damnation, the set backdrop is made of ancient, yellowed paper that swirls from the stage until it forms a tornado that disappears into the sky. It was gorgeous. The lighting by Darby Madewell, also a student participant, seamlessly married with and enhanced the action.
The acting was first-rate. The star of the show, Matthew Coker, really embodied the larger-than-life spirit of Oscar Wilde, foppery and all. Coker’s Wilde had just enough self-assurance to make the audience see why he naively thought his sexuality would not be an issue in the 1800s.
We also give a nod to the casting of women as both the prosecutor and as the defense attorney. Since women would not have been lawyers back in Wilde’s time, their standing in the shoes (and wigs) of male litigators hit the perfect note in a play about sexuality and morality. Not only was this an interesting choice given the theme of the play; but the two women cast, Natalie Sherwood and Nicole Hiemenz, were just super.
Finally, we must mention the costumes by Laura J. Parker. The crew did a great job handling period costumes for all of the principals and gave Wilde just a dash of something extra without making him appear to be a buffoon. And the details of the period undergarments were well done — and we are not going to tell you how we know about the period undergarments. Let’s just say that there were some lucky lady audience members sitting in the jury box. You will have to watch the play to learn more.
Although the story is set in 1895, the themes of the play — love and lust, society, morality, and personal truths — are all universal and very current. We thoroughly enjoyed the telling of the tale, and we think that you will too.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8177.
N.C. State University Theatre presents GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22, 2 p.m. Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26-29, 2 p.m. Oct. 30 in the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 E. Dunn Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607, on the NCSU campus.
TICKETS: $20 ($6 NCSU students, $12 non-NCSU students, $16 NCSU faculty and staff, and $18 seniors 60+), except $12 on Community Night (Oct. 26th).
BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/.
PRESENTER: https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/ncstateuniversitytheatre, and https://twitter.com/ncsutheatre.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (Irish playwright, novelist, and poet, 1854-1900): http://www.oscarwildesociety.co.uk/ (Oscar Wilde Society) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Wilde (Wikipedia).
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997 Off-Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=2758 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://tectonictheaterproject.org/ttp-plays/production-history/gross-indecency/ (Tectonic Theater Project), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/355 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_Indecency:_The_Three_Trials_of_Oscar_Wilde (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://www.denvercenter.org/docs/default-source/Show-Study-Guides/all-study-guides/gross-indecency-of-oscar-wilde.pdf (Denver Center Theatre Company).
Moisés Kaufman (director, playwright, and founder of Tectonic Theater Project): http://www.tectonictheaterproject.org/Moises_Kaufman.html (Tectonic Theater Project bio), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/1789 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/moiss-kaufman-113524 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0442229/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mois%C3%A9s_Kaufman (Wikipedia).
Rachel Klem (director and NCSU acting coach and instructor): https://theatre.arts.ncsu.edu/our-team/ (NCSU bio).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.