In its latest offering, Plaeides Productions stays true to its mission of teasing the limits.
Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is a fact-based account of the trials and subsequent downfall of the brilliant, egotistical late-19th-century wit. The play draws from the transcripts of the trials, as well as from Wilde’s own works (The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, De Profundis and The Picture of Dorian Gray), assertions from the media and retrospective published works by others involved in the trial.
The play opens with the first trial, in which the flamboyant poet/playwright is suing his lover’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, for libel. The marquis has publicly declared Wilde a posing “somdomite” [sic] in an effort to retrieve his son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, from what he calls a “most loathsome and disgusting relationship.”
It was at Douglas’ urgings that the situation escalated from argument to litigation. But in fact, Wilde’s own arrogance, self-proclaimed genius and constant quest to create and surround himself with beauty proved greater contributors to his undoing. A firm believer in the Aesthetic movement (art for art’s sake), Wilde once declared, “In writing a play or a book, I am concerned entirely with literature, that is, with art. I aim not at doing good or evil, but at making a thing that will have some quality of beauty.”
“I really lobbied hard to produce this work,” says stage manager and Plaeides founding member Amber Hawkins. “I had wanted to do this play for quite some time — I appreciated the humanization and truthful portrayal of Wilde’s downfall. He really unravels as the play progresses. And he isn’t idolized as much as I found in other stories about him.”
To emphasize the ideals Wilde represented, director Steve Livingston literally places lead actor Fjord McEuen on a pedestal. He remains standing there throughout the performance, a choice that runs counter to the original production’s suggested staging.
“I decided to design the set arena-style,” explains Livingston, “because we rarely get to perform on a real proscenium stage — and this way it really brings the actors closer to the audience.”
An interesting choice, considering that the majority of the action takes place in a British court — still known for its aloofness and intimidating attention to formality. This is just one of many intriguing juxtapositions that give the production its original flair, a quality Plaeides is known for. And McEuen keeps you guessing with his soft-spoken, sensual portrayal of Wilde. One might imagine the humorist a bit more brash, as he was known for his grandiose opinion of himself. (Upon arriving in America, it is said that Wilde stated to a customs agent, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”)
Numerous narrators provide a constant verbal tennis game as they introduce upcoming events and read quotes to amplify the unfolding story.
“Several actors [are] actually acting, [but there is] only one true character: Wilde,” Livingston explains.
As Wilde, McEuen displays a solid command of both a British accent and the play’s somewhat daunting language. And Ben Puckett’s comic portrayal of the doltish marquis is a delight.
The play is shaded by local color, more specifically that unmistakable “Asheville-slouch” vibe. Plaeides prides itself on letting its actors’ individuality shine through, and this is apparent in some characters’ more modern appearance.
“Rule number one in our company is that everybody has a good time,” Livingston offers, “and out of that the artistry follows. I chose to create a guided workshop atmosphere in our rehearsals.”
This was clear even at the final dress rehearsal. Before the play commenced, Livingston announced, amid laughter and commentary, “In solidarity of Wilde’s physical discomfort, please don’t cross your legs.”
“I’m really glad to be a part of a story about someone who created something, and really said f••k all of you — this is what I believe in,” puts in Puckett.