Gross Indecency, the wildly acclaimed play by Moises Kaufman, tells the fascinating story of Oscar Wilde's descent into ignominy. Tracing the three trials that ultimately destroyed his life, we watch as Wilde -- then at the peak of social and artistic success -- attempts to clear his name of a slur but ends up becoming the homosexual whipping boy of Victorian England. In turn, it investigates the image of Wilde as a contemporary gay icon -- after all, he was a man who not only publicly denied his sexuality but destroyed himself in the process.
The content of the story has the painful, momentous scope of Oedipus. But at the start, the play's form feels more like an old-style history lecture. Behind tables littered with books, nine male actors sit on an otherwise empty stage in austere black-and-white suits. I bristle upon hearing that the entire evening will consist of recounting the trials exclusively through primary sources. How didactic and untheatrical! Wilde reads solemnly: "Time and space are merely accidental conditions of thought. The imagination can transcend them."
Time, space, and God. Jeez, this from the man who practically invented irony? The part about transcending the past through imagination particularly rankles. This is just a piece of documentary theater in which the "playwright" graphs meaning and emotion entirely through the sly art of juxtaposition. Indeed, without Watergate, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Cops, and C-SPAN, it seems unlikely that a simple re-enactment of historical texts might become an off-Broadway hit. But in fact with its blend of high art, political activism, and postmodern theory's affection for multiplicity, documentary theater occupies an important if perplexing place in late-20th-century theater. After the kitchen-sink realism of the 1940s and '50s and the splashy experimentalism of the '60s and '70s, documentary theater -- like the autobiographical monologue -- arose out of the passion for the "real-life stories" now seen on talk shows and Court TV and the memoir-mania in the literary world. But unlike confessionary monologuists like Spalding Gray or Josh Kornbluth, who repackage their personal lives for public consumption, documentary theater writers invite audiences into a more political, less psychological vision of the world. It is, in fact, the most egoless, anti-authorial of forms. Through a painstaking process of interviewing and memorization, Anna Deavere Smith (Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992) depicts real individuals, but never ever plays herself.
In re-creating an event a century old, Kaufman has added a twist, using the source manuscripts and books as props; this self-conscious technique incessantly reminds us of the play's provenance and gives it a modern feel despite the 19th-century language. All "real drama" inevitably includes tedium; Kaufman shrewdly structures our experience to go from scholarly observation to emotional catharsis. For the first 20 minutes, the actors display their source materials and mouth their quotations with studious duty. Then Oscar Wilde takes the stand and everything changes.
In documentary theater, the actors' authenticity must cast a spell. The obsessional accuracy of Anna Deavere Smith's memorization of every pause, gesture, and fumble of her subjects makes it possible for us to believe we are witnessing history. Actor Michael Emerson -- like Deavere Smith -- possesses that same rare talent of being able to conjure up the palpable oddness of real life. In his elegant gesture and glassy-eyed gaze, his musical enunciation and hulking gait, he captures the unfolding complexity of a wounded aesthete whose wit and pride are working overtime in compensation. Buttressed by a versatile, vivid cast, the ensuing three hours of testimony, letters, and excerpts unwind effortlessly around his peculiar presence. Yet in the play's final passage, as the actors recite Wilde's sorrowful poem "The House of Judgment" with the wide-eyed earnestness of schoolchildren, I couldn't help wondering: Would Wilde -- the great proponent of irony and the imagination -- have accepted a portrait so bereft of fantasy?
-- Carol Lloyd
Xmas a Deux
Merry Tsismis. By Tongue in a Mood Productions. Directed by Allan Manalo. Starring Manalo, Kevin Camia, Patty Cachapero, and Rhoda Gravador. At Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), Dec. 11-20. The group plays again at Venue 9 on Jan. 27. Call 626-2169.
We Hate Christmas Shows. Starring Bill Bernat, Harmon Leon, and Mark Morey. At Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Howard), Dec. 14 & 21. Call 626-2169.
In the Philippines, the word tsismis (chiz-miz) has roughly the same meaning as the word quatschen in Germany, "talk story" in Hawaii, and "gossip" or "bullshit" in California. This makes the title Merry Tsismis especially merry. It's the name of a bullshit variety show, a collection of farce pieces turning on Filipino themes that first played at the Bindlestiff a few months ago and was recently rehashed for the holidays, apparently because the title made for such a fortunate pun.
The pieces were unrelated, and only a few were funny. The best one, easily, was "Klosit Komrades," a skit with actors anthropomorphizing kitsch items normally found in a Filipino-American home. These included Jesus Christ tchotchkes; a large wooden spoon and fork; a touristy-looking board mounted with knives that read, "The Weapons of Moroland"; and Barrel Guy, a grinning Filipino with nothing on under his barrel ("Lift up the barrel and there's my penis, what's the big deal?"). All of these items, except Jesus, had been rejected by the family upstairs. The items wanted to get out of storage but couldn't agree on a strategy. Their characterizations were the best part: Fork and Spoon were cowards; the Board of Knives was a militant Muslim revolutionary; Christ was a white man who promised to save them all. He didn't; but the skit found a certain resolution when a rejected plastic sofa cover crawled out of a trunk to tell about his ordeal.