The times they were a-changin’, even in the late 19th century. But not as fast as Oscar Wilde would have liked.
The famed author was found guilty by an English court for living his life based on the idea that pleasure should not be accompanied by guilt. That’s one of several important thematic ironies that run through “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” the latest offering from Portland’s Dramatic Repertory Company.
Moises Kaufman’s 1997 play is a wonderfully constructed variation on a courtroom drama, based on records and recollections of Wilde’s 1895 trials. Its two hours are filled with witness examinations as well as narrations that quote from the author’s writings, contemporaneous reportage and later-published remembrances of those associated with the events.
Director Keith Powell Beyland has assembled an able cast to give the appropriate tone and attitude to make both the true story and its multilevel telling equally fascinating. While the second act may serve largely to illustrate points already made in the first, it was buoyed at Friday’s performance by some imaginative acting from the cast of nine.
Each performer, most in multiple roles, takes on the accents and attitudes appropriate to his or her class, station and disposition within the sophisticated but inflexible world of Victorian England, a place and time where people were beginning to chafe at the hypocrisies embedded in everyday life while not quite ready to abandon them.
At the center of this glimpse into a culturally not-so-distant past is James Noel Hoban in the role of Oscar Wilde.
Hoban plays Wilde perhaps a bit less flamboyantly than some accounts of the actual author describe. His “defeated” demeanor as Wilde’s fate is sealed is, however, affecting in many subtle ways. His speeches against “Puritanism” and in favor of an artistic “brotherhood of man” create a perfect contrast to Wilde’s lying defenses of some legally forbidden trysts.
Benedetto Robinson, a local actor on the rise, deserves recognition for his believable take on Wilde’s young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Sincere, yet flawed by immaturity and an oppressive father, Robinson’s Douglas helps to bring out both the depth of feeling and the folly in his and Wilde’s social milieu.
Seth Berner, as the father and later an uncompromising barrister, is powerful. Matt Delamater and Chris Newcomb also are convincing during some heated courtroom exchanges.
Costumes by Travis Grant and lighting by Adam Vachon help greatly to realize the play within the intimate theater confines.
This theater company is finishing up its first season in fine style and promises a 2011-2012 season featuring more of the kind of plays even Oscar Wilde would find worthy.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.