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Moral Clarity 

Poor old Sebastian Melmoth. Old before his time. He was only 44 when he died. It was a raucous, gilded age -- turn-of-the-century Paris -- and he was an awe-inspiring ruin of a man: erudite, incisive, witty, and hard up to the point of cadging drinks from friends.

There are some photos. For instance, he's part of the crowd of artists and bohemians who showed up to support the aging Kiki de Montparnasse when she tried to make a comeback as an exotic dancer at an outdoor fair. He's just there, barely noticeable in the background. He who had always been stage center, lionized, quoted, the scintillating and provocative herald of a new sensibility. Sic transit gloria mundi.

His real name was Oscar Wilde. But that was too tinged by scandal. Or, to use a word we no longer understand, by "infamy." This separates us from Wilde himself, who -- courageously and heartrendingly -- faced some of the darker truths about himself. A man of his times, he understood the word "infamy" and, while he had no illusions about the close-minded, mean-spirited bigotry of his tormentors or the hypocrisy of society, he also knew he was to blame for his own undoing -- not only because of an arrogant disregard for danger, but also because he let a callous selfishness slip into his attitude toward others. He was, after all, brought down not by his love for Bosie, but by the male prostitutes that were being served up to him by a professional pimp.

True, it can be answered that many of the people who persecuted him were also seeing prostitutes -- his just happened to be boys. And, perhaps Wilde's later remorsefulness was merely a caving in, a sort of moral exhaustion. But, the true meaning of an act can only be known by the actor himself. Perhaps it really was sleazy and distasteful when this rich celebrity bought the sexual services of young valets and servants. When Wilde said, "It was not what I did that was wrong, but what I became," perhaps he was speaking with his customary lucidity.

Well, I don't propose to come to a conclusion about the endlessly fascinating Mr. Wilde. I am simply reveling in one of the pleasures of Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, recently produced by Dog and Pony at the Contemporary Arts Center -- revisiting the moral labyrinth of Wilde's meteoric rise and terrifying fall.

The play is a kind of presentational docudrama. Director John Grimsley turned the Bank One Theater into an arena, where the audience was put in the position of a Roman mob in the coliseum at an intellectual gladiatorial contest. One almost felt it was up to us to give thumbs up or thumbs down for the "posing sodomite."

For it was with this ludicrous solecism, scrawled on a visiting card by the Marquess of Queensbury and left at Wilde's club that the tragedy began. The general outlines of the story are familiar. But one is always struck by new facets; for instance, that the Marquess did not accuse Wilde of actually being a sodomite, only of posing as one. It was Wilde, in a colossal act of hubris, who sued the Marquess for libel (mostly to please his petulant lover, Bosie, who was the Marquess' son). In defense, the Marquess and his lawyer produced the "rent boys," who testified to Wilde's sexual tastes.

In a town like New Orleans, God knows, there must be many closet clones of the great wit and aesthete; Karl Lengel is not one of them. He didn't even try much to look like Wilde. But he has a commanding presence, a great voice and sure instincts, and he used these gifts to create a marvelous hero who came at the end -- after much virtuoso parrying -- to recognize his own tragic flaw.

The same might be said for Tristan Codrescu, who bears no resemblance to the real Bosie, but who summoned up a spoiled, self-centered young aristocrat -- attractive enough to make us understand Wilde's infatuation, bumptious enough to provoke the disaster.

George Patterson, C Patrick Gendusa, Tom Grantham and Gavin Mahlie ably supported this star-crossed pair of lovers in a variety of roles. C. Caine Lee, Clarence Wethern, Kevin Fricke and Adam Michael Dodds put in memorable cameos as the hapless lower-class catamites.

The set (designed by Grimsley, built by Anthony Favre) was as effective as it was simple: a hollow square of official-looking mahogany tables in the center of which stood a mahogany docket for witnesses. Cecile Casey Covert provided the apt costumes.

Queensbury vs. The High Priest of Decadence. One of the great fights of all times. And this rematch lived up to its expectations.

click to enlarge Karl Lengel's commanding presence as Oscar Wilde, all great voice and sure instincts, fueled his performance in Dog & Pony's recent presentation of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
  • Karl Lengel's commanding presence as Oscar Wilde, all great voice and sure instincts, fueled his performance in Dog & Pony's recent presentation of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
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