Bad Habit Productions

Wilde on Trial: Bad Habit’s “Gross Indecency”

As Boston’s larger theaters ramp up for their season openers next month, there’s a fantastic fringe gem to be seen on a backstage in the round setup at the BCA. And the word is out on Bad Habit Productions’, whose output just seems to be getting better & better, production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. They’re selling out shows and have just extended their run until September 2nd. I’ve sat through a few bad and frankly tiring fringe shows this summer and it’s incredibly satisfying and encouraging (especially as we go into fall) to see such a solid production. And one, I think it’s important to say, by a company that has built a real audience, not just the usual group of friends and fellow fringe sceners that too often fill the seats of Boston’s small shows.

Bad Habit has an uncanny ability to do British theater without failing, where so many small companies do, on the production level. The accents here are nearly flawless. The costumes (Pamela DeGregorio) are thrifty, but extremely well done especially where it counts, with Wilde’s (John Geoffrion) slimly tailored suit. And the production never descends into an anglophilic bore. Even on its bare set, the show moves along at a quick, infatuating pace. The cast delivers the text with a wonderful sense of its rhythm and Director Liz Fenstermaker’s blocking keeps the show in an almost constant state of artfully orchestrated motion.

Gross Indecency is something of a courtroom drama that traces the legal course of Wilde’s eventual conviction of “gross indecency” through playwright Moises Kaufman’s skillfully arranged excerpts-turned-lines from memoirs, newspapers, courtroom transcripts, letters, and biographies. It’s the jumps between Kaufman’s sources that make the play so lively and engaging and it’s really a triumph the text doesn’t a) become a dry historical drama or b) use the history only as a vehicle to convey a contemporary political agenda. A martyr Wilde was not. The picture we get here, is that Wilde’s conviction and eventual ruin was more of a tragic demise. He gets pulled into the squabbles of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas’, aristocrat family, taking Douglas’ father to court for libel over a nasty note. And Wilde does this believing he can out-wit the court, like it’s a society gathering at some London salon, exuding so much confidence that he compares letters of his submitted as evidence to Shakespeare. He is truly unable to separate his life from his art.

But for all his brilliant quips, flippant replies, and articulate speeches (which John Geoffrion pulls off with perfect confidence and poise), Wilde loses, eventually trapping himself by saying he didn’t kiss a boy because “he was not beautiful.” A remark he may have delivered glibly to a group of fellow aesthetes at another time & place. This leads to two subsequent trials where he is prosecuted by the crown for his sexual deviance, as well as Wilde’s eventual ruin. He still has friends until the end, but ignores their pleas that he go abroad–a solution which the British government would have found amenable. He stays to face trial, but we don’t know why. He doesn’t make the kind of stand we would expect from some artists. We watch him lie and rhetorically dance around questions of sexuality, just as his prosecutors try to accuse him of something “grossly indecent” without actually saying anything “indecent” themselves. After his conviction Wilde requests to speak, but isn’t allowed to and it’s probably in these missing words that the play’s contradictions and our questions over Wilde’s motivations might have had an answer.

There really isn’t enough good stuff to be said about this large, all male cast. Geoffrion is untouchable as Wilde, perfectly executing his witty exuberance and eventual decline. As Douglas, Kyle Cherry might just as well have come out of a softly focused sepia photograph and speaks and moves with youthful indulgence and aristocratic entitlement. Some of his closer moments with Wilde show just the right streak of his manipulative power over his older lover. David Lutheran plays Queensbury, Douglas’ stodgy father, with maniacal obsession, as a man who has it out for Wilde, but without weighing down his character with blind malice. A fantastic ensemble brings comedy through a long list of small but convincing characters that contribute much to portraying Wilde’s trials with historical and narrative conviction.

Bad Habit Productions’ Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde runs through September 2nd at the Wimberly Theatre. Tickets are $18 in advance, $23 day of, and available at bostontheatrescene.com

Bad Habit’s “Arcadia”

Easily the best fringe show I’ve seen this year is Bad Habit’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Director Daniel Morris (who did an admirable An Ideal Husband in 2009) has transgressed the usual limitations of fringe theater (less rehearsal time, young and less experienced actors, etc.) with this show that does certain justice to Stoppard’s challenging language and heady themes. The cast gives a flawless and delivery of Stoppard’s language, where there are more than a few mouthfuls, and doesn’t let their comic timing slip once, nailing every single joke in the play. The Nineteenth century manners and aristocratic British accents are managed as well and professionally as the technical subject matter, including modern literary scholarship and fractals. I was literally in awe through the entire first act, unable to take notes.

Of course, Bad Habit has chosen some excellent material (whose plot I’ll refrain from summarizing), but the play is as difficult as it is good. The real danger with Arcadia as a reader, director, or audience member, is cheapening it by seeing it only as a group of metaphors for its pop science subject matter. James Gleick’s Chaos: Making of a New Science came out about five years before Arcadia premiered in ’93 and quickly became one of the best selling pop science books of all time–read, or at least purchased, by scores of critics and theatergoers. Basically all the science in Arcadia is covered in this book. And reading Stoppard’s text through a critical or directorial lens rooted in Gleick’s science journalism trivializes the characters and their relationships.

Thankfully, Bad Habit hasn’t fallen into this trap and we get fantastic performances and even better quippy exchanges. Greg Nussen is memorable and mature as Septimus Hodge, the somber and aloof gentleman scientist and tutor to the cheeky child prodigy Thomasina Coverly (played well by Alycia Sacco, who subtly shifts the character from innocent smart ass to jail bait). A. Nora Long nails the airy condescension of Lady Croom, as she casually drops in and out of the action. Comic relief is well provided for by David Lutheran with his constipated facial expressions as the cuckolded and gullible minor poet Ezra Chater. The dialogue between John Geoffrion (as the ambitious Romantic literary scholar Bernard Nightingale) and Sarah Bedard (as Hannah Jarvis, the successful historical novelist with impressive research chops) is lively and well developed.

The second act didn’t go as well as the first. Some of the energy atrophied (perhaps this has something to do with entropy?) and the metaphorical climax of Arcadia, when the 1809 and 2011 timelines start to intersect, lacked the climactic energy I expected it to have. The blocking didn’t quite have the sense of dynamism and dance like intersection I would’ve liked to have seen. But, all in all, Bad Habit has an amazing show on their hands that shows artistic intelligence, a rare sense of comedy, excellent casting, and exceptional characterization.

Bad Habit’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia runs through August 28th at the BCA (527 Tremont). Tickets run $18 at bostontheatrescene.com.

Sadism at the YMCA: Bad Habit’s “Quills”

Set in the early 1800s at the Charenton Aslum for the Insane, Quills, illuminates the final days and lewd writings of the Marquis de Sade (Timothy Otte), the man for whom sadism was named.

The scenery, though suggestive of an asylum, is remarkably sparse. Fragments of red bars hang in the rear of the stage and the stone walls of the cell are curved and uneven at their edges. These scant barriers are suggestive of the ease with which the Marquis’s words slip through the bars of his cell to horrify and entertain his readers. Though Abbe de Coulmier (Eric Hamel) and Dr. Royer-Collard (James Bobock) struggle to censor the author, his expression cannot be halted. When they take away his quill, he writes in wine on his bed sheets. When the bed is stripped and he is given only water, he writes in his own blood on his clothes, crafting an entire suit of pornographic tales.

Of course, the Marquis’s continued resistance to rehabilitation forces the otherwise pious Abbe to further censor the libertine by stripping away his clothes and wig. For the remaining act and a half, Otte skillfully continues the flamboyancy and arrogance of the Marquis while completely nude. The disturbing thing is that even while naked, Otte finds ways to shock his audience. He grins malevolently and whispers tales of depraved sexual fantasies, of violence against children and prostitutes, and of the corruption of the church. Otte navigates the manipulative and sinister Marquis masterfully, making the character at once a victim, a lunatic, and a philosopher. He spews filth about pedophiles and torture, while debating the Abbe’s devotion to God.

Monsieur Prouix (Erin Gilligan), an architect and the only character with a French accent, and Renee Pelagie (Sally Nutt), the socialite wife of the Marquis, add some comic relief to Quills. Prouix dreams of white marble and silk tapestries and ivory imported from India, concerned only with the beauty of his own creation. Renee Pelagie, though manipulative in her own right, cares more for plum tarts and opera dates than the well-being of her husband and his caretakers.

Madeleine LeCleur (Jenny Reagan) provides an interesting foil for the Marquis. Dr. Royer-Collard damns the aristocrat for using his writing to incite violence, but the only true reader in the play is the laundress Madeleine, a sweet girl who reads the stories to her blind mother. They both see the stories as a way to escape the tedium of washing the asylum’s linens.

Each character in Quills is a victim, and while the Marquis de Sade most actively teases the fates, each character plays his own part in his own demise. Predictably, the saintly Abbe de Coulmier falls the farthest, done in by his belief that the end justifies the means, caught up in the tales of violence until he too questions God and longs to feel the pull of a blade against his flesh.

Quills runs from July 29th to August 8th, with evening performances Wednesday through Saturday and a matinée on Sunday. Tickets are $15 online and $20 at the door, with $10 student rush tickets. Performed by Bad Habit Productions at the Durell Theater at the YMCA Cambridge in Central Square.

Bad Habit’s An Ideal Husband

Bad Habit Productions is offering an admirable little production of Oscar Wilde’s farce An Ideal Husband this month at the Cambridge YMCA theater. Director Daniel Morris shakes things up with some gender-bending double casting. Sasha Castroverde plays both Lord Caversham and Lady Chiltern. Anna Waldron plays Mabel and Mrs. Cheveley, though, despite her red hair, she’s stronger as Mabel. Adam Kassim plays Goring (here, with hovering wrists, more of a modern closet homosexual than Victorian dandy) and, in drag, a hilarious Lady Markby. Tom Giordano sports a dress as Lady Basildon and a tailcoat as Chiltern. And everyone plays Goring’s butler Phipps. This works better as a comic effect and a means of streamlining the production than it does as a study of the parallels between characters; Lady Chiltern/Lord Caversham, Mabel/Cheveley. It’s hilarious to see three different actors as Phipps inside of five minutes. For someone familiar with the play this casting doesn’t present any problems, despite regular costume changes. But, two girls seated behind me seemed to have some initial trouble separating out all of Wilde’s Ladies.

The Cambridge YMCA’s Victorian theater, built in 1897 (only two years after the play’s premiere at The Theatre Royal Haymarket), provides an apt home for the production’s smart set, although the Y is limited when it comes to lighting. A comedy of manners doesn’t work without costumes (how many suits can a dandy wear in 24 hours?) and a set that communicate the text’s posh setting. Without the proper backdrop, the language, characters, and events aren’t believable. Since crown molding isn’t cheap, this can be a problem for more frugal productions that aren’t catering to thousands of subscribers and fetching $50+ a ticket. Bad Habit makes do without it, painting on a chair rail and wainscotting. Adjustable curtains and a quick shift of the furniture make for a swift change from the Chiltern to the Goring home, the latter configuration requiring multiple rooms. Even cleverer than these technical considerations is the use of paintings that Wilde may have had in mind when he described his characters in his stage directions. For the direction below, Bad Habit reproduced Watteau’s La Gamme d’Amour (1712). It’s a subtle, smart touch.

MRS. MARCHMONT and LADY BASILDON, two very pretty women, are seated together on a Louis Seize sofa. They are types of exquisite fragility. Their affectation of manner has a delicate charm. Watteau would have loved to paint them.

Chiltern's House

And maybe even cleverer is the “Wilde Exhibition,” organized in conjunction with the production. Sixteen or so pictures by local artists (all for sale) that somehow and represent Wilde’s themes are on display around the theater. Even more than these pictures represent Wilde’s themes, they represent the kind of community collaborations that theater organizations, large and small, should seek. If you’re in the mood for a non-Christmas classic, this production of Wilde’s witty morality-comedy is a safe bet, with low ticket prices, solid production values, and some updates that modernize the text without sacrificing any of it.

Bad Habit Productions presents Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband directed by Daniel Morris at the Central Square YMCA’s Durell Theatre, 820 Massachusetts Ave, through December 13th. Tickets: $15 on-line, $20 at-the-door, $10 student rush