Oscar Wilde famously said, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." With Orlando's Pride Week and Halloween season intersecting, there's no better time to honor the progenitor of modern queer culture, and no more appropriate actor to don his emerald mantle than Michael Wanzie, who both produces and stars in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at the Parliament House's Footlight Theatre through Oct. 27.
I interviewed Wanzie after his opening night performance about this powerful pairing of an LGBTQ icon with legendary local artists and a historic venue. Wanzie first discovered Wilde during the late 1970s, when he was cast as Algernon in Orlando Classic Theatre's Importance of Being Earnest and "fell in love with the playwright's use of language and his almost lyrical turns of phrases and terrific wit contained in that text." When a gap opened in his work schedule, Wanzie crowd-sourced script suggestions and discovered this transcript-based docudrama by Moises Kaufman, best known as creator of The Laramie Project. "A third of the way through reading it I knew I wanted to play Wilde, despite my being 22 years too old to play the part," Wanzie confesses, "and the best way to ensure you get the role you want in a play is to produce that play and pre-cast yourself in the role."
Wilde was a complex character, whose full-throated (but false) protestations of sexual innocence have an eerie resonance right now, and Wanzie captures his self-destructive contradictions with unexpected empathy. Wanzie is well-known for his sharp tongue and comic timing, so it's no surprise he can deliver Wilde's bon mots with bull's-eye accuracy. But his impassioned performance digs deep below surface impressions into his personal connection with the poet's philosophies.
"Not that I for one moment am putting myself on a par with this man's genius with regards to wordplay and his poetic way of speaking, nor even his wit," says Wanzie, "but his views on keeping company with men much younger than himself, and his total disregard for societal norms, and his ardent disdain of government intrusion in art and for 'modern morality' are all 100 percent in accord with my own views."
Every tragedy needs a good antagonist, and Chad Lewis is one of the few Orlando actors who could go toe-to-toe with Wanzie's Wilde as Lord Queensberry, father of Oscar's lover Alfred (Alan Pagan), and defendant in the 1895 libel trial that led to Wilde's downfall. Lewis is humorous and hateful, infuriating and intimidating, horrifying and human – and that's all in only one of the three characters he portrays. The supporting cast handles the dense legalese and archaic dialects with varying degrees of success, but when Lewis and Wilde face off, their century-ago feud feels as current as anything on cable news. Behind the scenes, Wanzie observes, "Chad is also a very good director in his own right. So he brings with him certain instincts that have proven to be a tremendous asset to our production, especially since our director, David Gerrard, made it clear from the onset that he would be receptive to input from the actors."
Gross Indecency marks Wanzie's return to producing and performing at the Parliament House for the first time in nearly three years. Wanzie attributes his absence to Tim Evanicki, the venue's producer whose short tenure ended in late 2017 amid accusations of artists not being paid properly. "I have a well-established history of choosing not to associate with any person, producer or theater who takes advantage of and disrespects talent in that way," says Wanzie. "The moment Tim left off managing the space I was in the front office of the Parliament House, checking on the availability of the theater for my next project, which wound up being Gross Indecency – and I am very happy to be back!"
Wanzie, whose shows were once synonymous with the venerable gay-friendly resort, says that he "had many venues available to me for the mounting of this play, but considering the legacy of the Parliament House and the significant role it has played in local gay history, I knew from the start the Footlight Theatre was the only place I wanted to present this particular show." Like his bond with Wilde, Wanzie's affection for the venue transcends mere aesthetics to make a statement about individual freedom.
"I could write a book on the myriad of ways in which the Parliament House has been at the forefront of helping to create and enhance Orlando's gay community," Wanzie says. "The Parliament House was at one time the only venue in the entirety of Central Florida where a gay-positive play could be produced. And that is a fact."