Arts & Events

THEATER REVIEW:Mark Jackson's 'Salomania' at the Aurora

By Ken Bullock
Friday June 29, 2012 - 11:29:00 AM

"Active Service Chocolate" with the Union Jack on the Cadbury's label ... It's what all the Tommies are talking about in the trenches—when they're not talking about that scandalous American dancer Maud Allan, who keeps showing up almost nude onstage in London and threatening libel suits to her detractors in the newspapers ... 

Mark Jackson's latest project at the Aurora, 'Salomania,' is the very interesting story of Maud Allan, nee Durrant, late of San Francisco, her London career as a dancer at the time of the First World War, and the libel action she took against MP and tabloid publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing, who'd curiously bannered a condemnation of her artistry and influence as "the Cult of the Clitoris." 

Allan's SF backstory, to use the parlance of screen writers, is interesting, too, something unearthed by Billing, and by playwright-director Jackson: her brother had been executed for the sexual assault and murder of two girls whose bodies had been found in a church steeple, a crime he denied all the way to the gallows. (There's a scene of him with the noose on, communicating or communing with his sister in Europe. Jackson believes much of Maud Allan's m. o. proceeds from the guilt of not being with her brother and mother in San Francisco, rather than studying music in Germany, then dancing in England.) 

Allan's notoriety was keyed up from a single performance she did of Oscar Wilde's Salome, some deeming her Dance of the Seven Veils before Herod in it to be scandalous. The libel trial she set into motion also reminded observers of Wilde's disastrous libel action against the Marquis of Queensbury, father of Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred ("Bosie") Douglas, credited for translating Salome into English from Wilde's original French script. Both libel suits ended in opprobrium for the plaintiff. 

Jackson directed his own version of Salome at the Aurora a few years back, resetting it from Herod's court in Jerusalem at the time of Christ (and soon-to-be-beheaded John the Baptist) to Deco-era New York City. 

Just as "raw" staging, much of 'Salomania'—especially the first part—is the most interesting material onstage I've seen of Jackson's in the 10 or 12 plays of his, including others originals he's both written and directed, I've reviewed over the past decade. The ensemble of Tommies in their trenches at the Front ("Funny name, No Man's Land," one muses, "Quite well populated, if you think about it ... ") are engaging as a group and as individual voices, especially in moments when the conversation, sometimes bickering, stops so they can listen to a solitary bird they've named, singing during a lull in shelling, but at a time they're not used to hearing that rare voice of Nature amid the churned up mud of modern war. And the actors are off their leashes and acting full-out, more than in other Jackson plays ... Kevin Clarke, Alex Moggridge Anthony Nemirovsky, Mark Anderson Phillips, Liam Vincent (who excellently portrays Bosie in all his bitchy, weaselly glory on the witness stand) and Marilee Talkington all play their various parts and combine for the ensemble roles very well. (A London pub encounter between soldier on leave Moggridge and widowed Cockney Talkington, while other players turn the riser their table rests on—like the spiraling camera movement identified with film directors from the late Theo Angelopoulos to Brian De Palma—is a particular high point, a kind of window into the lives of two normal folks in abnormal times, a state of emergency ... ) 

State of Emergency's the word for the sense that impels the play and its players, from the Tommys' fear of death to Billing's wild claims of a conspiracy of sexual deviants trying to literally unman the British Empire (shades of Colonel Jack Ripper and 'Dr. Strangelove'!), to Maud Allan's legal attempt to put any number of old ghosts, personal and quite public, to rest ... 

There are problems, though, with coherence of purpose: to what end is the splicing together of these different stories? They do connect historically, but don't always yield more sense in Jackson's sampling of them, nor do they come together as an anachronistic commentary, outside of brief, not particularly illuminating, references to current crises that have raised the specter of "deviance" as standard for the scare mongers. In fact, the most anachronistic effect is the unfortunate tendency of too many contemporary productions that depict the past in making the audience laugh at how "backward" the past seems through the lens of a contemporary spectacle about it—"they don't undersatnd 'clitoris' or 'orgasm'!"—as if we had come up with an objective standard for history and ideology ... 

Madeline H. D. Brown, a talented actress and physical theater performer, takes center stage when on the stand at the trial, questioned by the devious, yet over-the-top Billing (Mark Anderson Phillips), deflecting his insinuations with her wit and anger. Elsewhere in the play, she's reduced to Chris Black's "decorous movements" (as the Chronicle reviewer aptly called them), roaming or stalking through scenes she would not have witnessed, as in a kind of onstage crosscutting from the silent films of D. W. Griffith, at his apogee in those years, including war propaganda for the British. These movements are a drastic reduction of the kind of post-Isadora Duncan (another SFnative) dance that gripped the modern artists and audiences of the time. There're film clips from that era and contemporary interpreters of brilliance (like San Francisco's Mary Sano) thatreveal something of the revelation—or epiphany—early modern dance inspired, while shocking reactionaries, not the silliness of what seems old-fashioned and passe' to us now, from uninformed "reconstructions," but what made poets like W. B. Yeats come out with paeans to the renewed art such as" "When Loie Fuller's Chinese dancers enwound/A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,/It seemed that a dragon of air/Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round/Or hurried them off on its own furious path ... " ("Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen) 

As for that other Irish poet/playwright of great note, whose specter falls over the incidents of the play, Kevin Clarke manages a good presence as Wilde in an imaginary conversation (also at a slowly rotating table) at the end of the play with Brown's Allen. But the impression of Oscar that comes across, like many others in 'Salomania,' is somewhat banal, too much the Oscar Wilde-wisecracker, self-regarding artist of so many portrayals in film and TV—or in the tabloids ... not the artist (and great aesthetic thinker) who, at the end of his life, exhorted novelist Andre Gide to "Never, ever say I—for in art, there is no first person." 

'Salomania's' an interesting, if sometimes frustrating show, but it advances Mark Jackson in his efforts to mount his own kind of spectacle of the past, past history and fictions, as did his adaptation of Kafka's "Metamorphosis,' last at Aurora. 

At various times, Tuesday through Sunday, through July 22, Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (near Shattuck). $30-$48. 843-4822;