Craig Johnson and Grant Sorenson.
Photo courtesy Walking Shadow Theatre Company
Art and courtrooms don't mix. Even the most erudite and thoughtful creator can be tripped up in the minutia of the law, where precision and clearly defined facts are king; not the illumination of the human condition or the betterment (or just entertainment) of the viewer, listener, or reader.
Unlike Henry Miller or Jello Biafra, Oscar Wilde wasn't directly on trial for what he created. While works like The Picture of Dorian Grey may have stirred controversy in Victorian England, they unto themselves did not bring the author before the dock. Instead, it was his very nature that put him before the court and, eventually, into prison.
Moises Kaufman's deep and rich examination of the times and motivations of those involved in the case gets a rigorous reading from Walking Shadow Theater Company and director Amy Rummenie. Craig Johnson fully inhabits the title character, bringing out not just wit, but also the depth of his mind and power of his personality and convictions.
The trials occurred in quick succession in 1895. Wilde was at the height of his popularity, with two hits running on the West End. The first libel trial was triggered by a card left by the father of Wilde's lover, the Marquess of Queensberry (yes, the one who codified the rules of boxing). The bad-speller Marquess accused Wilde of being a "posing somdomite," which -- as being gay in Victorian England was a crime (the law was not rescinded until the1950s) -- put Wilde is considerable jeopardy.
Spurred on by his lover -- who had considerable daddy issues -- Wilde brought the libel case. When he lost, Wilde in turn found himself accused of gross indecency. The two following trials eventually found him guilty and sentenced to two years hard labor.
Kaufman adds in some of the social and political texture of the times. There were tinges of class (Wilde liked the company of working-class lads), anti-Irish sentiment, and a desire by the upright members of society to purge this fly in their perfect conservative society. Like The Laramie Project -- another piece built by Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project -- Gross Indecency uses the words of the actual people involved, from the questions and answers at the Old Bailey to newspaper reports to the memoirs of several of the people involved.
The core here, however, is Wilde. While he is cagey about the details of his lifestyle -- remember, an open admittance of it would be admitting to a crime -- Wilde is rigorous in defense of his art. Johnson embodies the different sides of Wilde at every turn, building one of the deepest and richest performances on a local stage in quite some time.
Eight additional male actors take on the remainder of the roles, led by Casey Hoekstra as Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Hoekstra isn't nearly as confident in his performance as Johnson, making the character a touch muddled. It's hard to see what drew "Bosie" and Wilde so close, and why the successful author would risk all for this young man.
Elsewhere, there is a mix of veteran performers and young actors, from James Tucker's roles as the overbearing Marquess and the prosecuting attorneys at Wilde's later trials to David Beukema, who may have been able to clear part of his acting bucket list by playing a high-court judge and Queen Victoria in the same production.
IF YOU GO:
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
Through May 4
Minneapolis Theatre Garage
711 West Franklin Ave., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 1.800.838.3006 or visit online.