Off with the Veils: Salomé at the Sherman Playhouse
By David Begelman
History has not been kind to Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Outrageous in its time, it was originally banned from the British stage. Today, it seems lame by comparison with other contemporary works dripping with passion and sensuality. No reflection on the abilities of the author of The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan. It’s just that public sensibility nowadays is less shocked at the foibles of femmes fatale like Wilde’s central character. The kinkier they get, they tend to produce nothing more arresting than a yawn in most of us. Salomé might pass muster as a ballet, rock musical, or, as in the case of Richard Strauss, an opera. As a play, it is a colossal bore today.
Wilde’s Salomé is a Victorian spin on brief passages in Matthew (14: 3-11) and Mark (6: 17-29). It was the playwright’s version of the temptress who, unlike her counterpart in the Old Testament, Delilah, went unnamed. The Roman historian Flavius Josephus may have been the first to identify her as “Salomé.”
In the drama, the temptress has her own agenda: scheming to kill John the Baptist (Iokannan), because he resists her attempts to seduce him. Extracting a promise from Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee, to give her anything she wishes, Salomé opts for the head of the prophet, delivered on a silver platter. Ugh. Not only is the item delivered, it appears as a decapitated part on which Salome bestows a passionate kiss, commemorating a first in necrophilia in the annals of modern drama.
Biblically, the scenario is somewhat different. The real troublemaker in the Synoptic Gospels was Herodias, mother of Salomé and wife of Herod. She is the one who connives to kill John because the prophet condemned her marriage to her previous husband’s brother (shades of the Shakespearean scenario in Hamlet). History has rewarded her with a prominent place among witches nightflying to revelries with Satan in the woods, in the company of Diana, the—tell it to the marines—“virgin goddess.”
The Sherman Players went out on a limb to produce the dated work. The decision to opt for modern dress has been an acceptable practice since Orson Welles’ production of Julius Caesar, and has worked well for many dramas authored in other eras, as it does for this one.
It’s just that an audience has to brace itself for Oscar Wilde lines like, “I am amorous of your body, Iohannan,” or “Iohannan, your hair is like clusters of grapes.” No wonder John the Baptist longed to retreat to his cistern as rapidly as possible. Anyone who tempts a saint with palaver like this had better go back to the drawing board. Maybe this manner of importuning had a biblical ring of truth for Victorians. Today, it wouldn’t cut the mustard for any of us—with or without raging hormones.
At any rate, Director Joseph Russo and his cast took the brave plunge into Wilde’s play—with dubious results. Actors tended to give stilted portrayals. Characters are depicted in ways that are too broad and caricatured to have the ring of truth. John Taylor as Herod Antipas registered humanity, in part because his role was scripted in a more nuanced way in Wilde’s drama; in part because Mr. Taylor was able to radiate the peevishness of this potentate.
Herod has the hots for Salomé; so much so that he is willing to grant her any wish—including half his kingdom—providing she dance for him. When she demands the head of the prophet, Herod, fearful of the wrath of the Christian god, has a series of meltdowns that are not without their comic aspects in Mr. Taylor’s portrayal.
Demanding that she reverse her decision, he regales Salomé with offers of jewels, crystals, 100 white peacocks, and most everything else he owns. She refuses and sticks to her guns. His response has a contemporary ring: “You’re not listening to me!” Or the by now familiar lament about wayward youth, “She truly is her mother’s child!” When it comes to the reported miracles of Jesus, Herod displays the customary snippiness of autocrats: healing lepers and changing water into wine are acceptable, but “I will not allow him to raise the dead!”
Kataya Collazo’s Dance of the Seven Veils was easy on the eyes, and highlighted by Peter Petrino’s Lighting Design, even if Salomé disappeared into the wings just before the last veil was shed. Talk about disappointed expectations.
Notice to the Roman soldiers in the play perplexed by the invisibility of the Hebrew god: since when have Jupiter, Minerva, Apollo or Venus put in visible appearances? So why pretend Judaism is unique when it comes to invisible gods?
Notice to the production team of Salomé at The Sherman Playhouse: What happened to the silver platter? And John the Baptist beheaded with a samurai sword? It’s an Oscar Wilde play, not an Akira Kurosawa movie.
Salomé opened at The Sherman Playhouse on July 24, and runs until August 15, 2009. Performances are at 8:00 PM, and there is a Sunday matinee at 2:00 PM on August 2. Tickets are $20 for open seating, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 860.354.3622 or online at www.shermanplayers.org