By Ken Bullock
Special to the Planet
“Bring to me, on a silver charger ...” The story of Salome is familiar enough. From a few terse words in two of the Gospels, in which an unnamed step-daughter of Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea, pleases him with her dancing—and as reward, asks for the head of John the Baptist—the image of Salome as temptress, lovelorn pagan, searching soul in the midst of archaic social decadence, has inspired religious and profane art for centuries.
The Aurora Theatre’s currently producing Oscar Wilde’s Belle Epoch stage play of the legend, “slightly adapted” and directed by Mark Jackson, whose Death of Meyerhold, which he wrote and directed, was a great success for Shotgun a few years back.
Probably Wilde’s Salome is more familiar to current audiences through the Richard Strauss opera and the pre-Expressionist, pre-Surrealist, extravagantly stylized illustrations to the book by Aubrey Beardsley.
Wilde wrote the play in French; it was originally translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas (there’s no translation credit in the Aurora program), the “Bosie” whose relations with Wilde would lead to the notorious libel suit against Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, then Wilde’s trial shortly after Salome’s publication which resulted in Wilde’s imprisonment, the ruin of his career and his legend as a kind of “Poet Maudit” of England, homosexually debauched, artistically effete and grandiosely self-regarding.
The real intent of Wilde’s writings for both page and stage is another story. But unfortunately director Jackson chooses to confabulate Wilde’s myth with contemporary preoccupations and abandon the dramaturgy of Wilde’s work.
Wilde’s mother was an ardent Irish nationalist. In his university days and after, he never forgot he was something of an exotic dinner guest at the imperial British table, and he played the part to the hilt. Like a court jester, he wittily impugned the corruption he saw around him, most memorably in bon mots tossed off as if careless, carefree witticisms. They pepper his plays and other writings, besides being a staple of his act of man-about-town, of-the-world.
Salome seems like an anomaly to all of this. Sometimes dismissed as an over-the-top wallowing in purple verse, it harkens back to Wilde’s close reading of the classics and of scripture at Oxford. Victorian society was much taken up with the notion of its origins in the two opposing traditions of the Greek and the Hebraic—Athens and Jerusalem.
Thomas Hardy, among others, worked up this opposition of Grecian Beauty versus Judaic Morality into full-blown (and censured) attacks on the hypocrisy and repression of British society and its cultural and moral pretensions. Salome wasn’t produced in Wilde’s lifetime due to a prohibition on plays with biblical personae, not because of its sexual implications
Wilde’s play takes the story of Palestine under Roman rule, rife with rebels and prophets, and puts it together for the stage in the form of a Greek tragedy, with its chorus opening the play quietly (here more declamatory), gossiping about events already unfolding and about “the Quality” (Herod and his family), utilizing a broad dynamic of voice registers. The chorus of servants and functionaries (Joel Rainwater, Beth Wilmurt, Deontay Wilson, Trish Mulholland) comes from all across the Empire in what should be a range of social mannerism in Tragic speech ignored by most modern translators and adapters, Ezra Pound a notable exception.
The action develops as Salome (Miranda Calderon) enters, peeling off from a banquet, complaining that Herod keeps looking at her and asks to see Iokannan (John, played by Mark Anderson Phillips) the prophet, whose prophetic outcries from the dungeon fill the palace. She confronts that “voice crying in the wilderness,” makes advances on him--and is spurned.
Herod (Ron Campbell) and his consort (who is Salome’s mother by Herod’s brother), Herodias (Julia Brothers—splendid throughout), enter, with Herod later requesting for Salome to dance (Herodias protesting). Then comes the dance—and Salome’s own, ghastly request in return (with Herodias, taking Iokanaan’s prophecies of doom as personal libel, approving, to Herod’s dismay), her revenge on the one man who wouldn’t look at her.
Herod’s offer of all the jewels in his treasury, if Salome will relinquish her grisly request, glitters with their names. Wilde here (and elsewhere) poses the erotically poetic language of the Old Testament’s “Song of Songs” (which became an anthem to European nationalism when translated into the vernaculars) against the stark, spare New Testament admonitions of Iokanaan. Ron Campbell, a talented if problematic comic actor, fiddles so much with gestural and vocal schtick (sometimes palletizing and nasalizing from a whisper up to a scream) that the audience loses the hypnotic language, and the meaning and direction, of the text.
Wilde’s original is a seductively subversive attack on the English dysfunctional family, via this caricaturish Roman “royal” family of a colonial viceroy and his menage, sunk in decadent and corrupt luxury, strangely fascinated by their “fundamentalist” prisoner, who prophecies of the coming of a new order, of redemption—and judgment.
With all the recent crop of movies, in particular, that use the Middle American dysfunctional family to criticize the national sense of mission to democratize the world, it’s hard to see how a production of Wilde’s very theatrical rhetoric against the crown of that Empire “on which the sun never set” couldn’t be posed so as to find a contemporary voice, at least vibrate some resonance.
But Jackson’s sense of Salome as a “coming out” play, a tale of “paedophilia” (though Salome seems to be of marriagable age, if still young), makes this show an awkward manifestation of tabloid aestheticism, taking Wilde’s disguise(s) for the substance of his art.
The production, with its tiled and marble set, with a metal cage like a lift suspended above (designed by Mikiko Uesugi), and sumptuous costumery (Callie Floor) is irrelevantly relocated to Art Deco New York. And there’s none of the dreamlike grotesquery or strange timelessness of the Aubrey Beardsley figures, just a parody of pantomime instead of stylization, gestures with locked musculature that look like neo-Reichian exercises.
Salome’s dance itself turns out to be the best thing in the show, choreographed by Chris Black, with Calderon as a kind of Electra of the Discos (Wilde’s Salome reminds one alternately of Electra and of Hamlet with their incestuous familial predicaments), doing a wild combo of Mideastern and Interpretive Dance (and Campbell’s lascivious onlooking finally hits the mark). But lights and sound, even here, are Disneyish illustrations of the action, the stage bathed in red when “blood” is mentioned, wind whistling when Herod alone hears a breeze—and much over-projection by the cast in a small auditorium.
Sadly, Oscar Wilde’s reputation is built on mostly cheap sensationalism. This production passes up the chance to explore a seldom-produced work, to reveal the face of the artist—and its true expression—behind the rather louche grimace of his mask.
Through Oct. 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. $38. 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org.