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Photograph by Fredrick Lee
A TALENT TO AMUSE: John Aney's Oscar confronts Victorian morality in 'The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.'

Circus Trials

Theatre Q recalls the scandal supreme of Oscar Wilde's days in court

By Marianne Messina

THE THREE trials of Oscar Wilde started with Wilde suing Lord Queensberry for calling him a "posing sodomite" and ended with Wilde convicted of "gross indecency" and sent to two years' hard labor. These Victorian-era trials provided forensic theater of Monica Lewinsky magnitude to bankroll the British press. In Moisés Kaufman's play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Theatre Q captures the salaciousness with Mark Nagle's costume design for four scandalous witnesses, a group of "blackmailers" (male prostitutes). Arms draped over shoulders, Charles Parker (Thomas Azar), Fred Atkins (Kevin Hsieh), Sydney Mavor (Patrick Hilt) and Alfred Wood (Matthew Lowe) cavort into the courtroom, shirtless in suspendered shorts and knee sox. Shocking prosecutors with their gutter minds and smutty details, they carry the play to its humorous summit.

Part Wilde (Brian Gilbert's 1997 film) and part The Laramie Project (Kaufman's later work), this nine-actor play has characters recite from ample and diverse sources—biographies, newspapers, Wilde's letter from prison De Profundis and the memoirs of Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas (Scott Ludwig), son of the accusing Queensberry (Michael Moerman) and object of Wilde's affections. As to Bosie's character, Wilde (John T. Aney) says it best in the play, "I like those who may be called idle or careless."

This production is at its best bringing a doc-cinema sensibility to the stage. Rapid pace, several zones, simultaneous action and clipped speeches create the sense of newshounds chasing down harried or unwilling witnesses. Give the cast and this device, wooden and depersonalized as a newscast, a little time. With large blue eyes and ruddy face, Aney begins as a Malcolm McDowell of a Wilde and grows more warm and accessible as the play progresses. However short on interpreting the key figures (erase Wilde, the film, from your mind), the production invigorates the stage with the cross-cultural tensions that drove the chaotic, Wilde-trial circus. The zeitgeist, a composite of Victorian voices, is the real personality here. Eventually, the queen steps in to press for a conviction, and Theatre Q renders Queen Victoria with a creative, humorous merging of projection and actor. In regard to broadening anti-gay legal language to include women, the queen reportedly replies, "Women don't do such things." From the charged hoots of laughter in response, one might gather there were lesbians in the house—their openness a vindication of Wilde.

Theatre Q makes all the minor characters fun, especially Azar in his Cockney and Irish accents (good dialect coaching from Richard Newton), Hsieh with his impudent eye-rolling and curly-haired, rosy-cheeked Lowe as quintessential catamite, luxuriating, recumbent across a courtroom table. "This is what art leads to," says a too-familiar Victorian voice. Ron Gasparinetti's scenic design sets up an interesting equation for Wilde and question for the audience. Stacks of books strewn over white tables are echoed in stacks on the floor that resemble both books and blocks of granite, as in "hard labor." Claiming that "moral people are simple beasts," Wilde had a personality that Victorian England could not keep a lid on; occasionally, this production feels as if it, too, is wrestling with that lid, leaving much of the flame, the complexity, the passion to Wilde's own words. Fortunately, there are plenty.

GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE, a Theatre Q production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 22 at Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto. Tickets are $15/$20. (415.433.1235)

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