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Theatre Review: Electric Performances Enliven CATCO’s Dry Gross Indecency

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Electric Performances Enliven CATCO’s Dry Gross IndecencyMatthew Sierra, a CATCO 2016-17 acting apprentice, left, and Josh Katawick, resident ensemble member of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, appear in the regional premiere of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde through Nov. 20, 2016, at CATCO. Photo by Sarah Mills Bacha.
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CATCO opened a regional premiere of Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde in a production directed by Steven C. Anderson last weekend.

Kaufman uses Oscar Wilde’s public downfall in the Victorian judicial system – beautifully depicted here in Michael S. Brewer’s set as a labyrinth – as a springboard. The play tackles the way pride creates our downfall, and how easily fame and reputation can seem to shield us; the first trial is brought by Oscar Wilde (a remarkable Josh Katawick) accusing the Marquis de Queensberry (Christopher Moore Griffin) of libel based on the famed boxer’s disgust at Wilde’s relationship with the Marquis’ son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Matthew Sierra).

The plea negotiated between his attorney Edward George Clarke (Ralph E. Scott), and Queensbury opened the door for the crown to prosecute Wilde for the “gross indecency” of sodomy, laws only put on the books in the previous decade. It takes two trials from that point because the first jury cannot come to a verdict. In the mean time, the most popular and among the most acclaimed writers of the age has his two hit plays close on the West End, other income dry up, and his estate sold piece meal.

The uniformly excellent cast sells Kaufman’s mosaic approach, where actors slip out of character to cite sources for snatches of dialogue or exposition. Katawick’s electrifying Wilde is a rare, complete personification of a figure most of us know cast in full flesh. Sierra, as his Bosie, goes toe-to-toe and carves out his own air with a defined, confident rhythm. Griffin cuts an intriguing figure as the ugly faces of authority, the unhinged blow-hard Marquis de Queensberry in the first act and the conflicted lead counselor of prosecution Frank Lockwood in the second. Foremost among the terrific utility players is David Vargo who lights the stage as semi-satiric professor Marvin Taylor, the Marquis’ sadistic, baffled, lawyer Edward Carson, and George Bernard Shaw; with special attention paid to Danny Turek and Ben Tracy who make the most of narrator roles and the “corrupted” youths called to testify.

When the production excels Anderson almost directs it like a ballet with characters moving in and out of the boxes they’re stuck in only to find themselves in another box. Where both the play and production – at a long two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission – bog down comes with the use of repetition. Too many of the plethora of cited sources make the same point over and over again – the nadir of which comes when we’re treating to one character standing center stage and reading a transcript of a scene we just saw 10 minutes earlier. We’re bombarded with dates and facts that grind the action down instead of propping it up.

For a play about someone who devoted his life to the belief that beauty uplifts everything and is worth dying for, it too often revels in the mundane and only shows that beauty in flashes and fireworks. Sluggishness and dryness keep Gross Indecency from being a riveting night at the theatre for anyone who’s not already a big fan of Oscar Wilde, the era, or the evolution of the law. But there are moments that will take your breath away.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde runs through November 20 with performances at 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and more info, visit catco.org.

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