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Girl Gone Wilde 

Is Salome a comedy, a tragedy, or both and neither at once?

Wednesday, Sep 6 2006
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Featuring a scene in which a woman kisses a severed head, a soothsayer ranting oaths from the bottom of a septic tank, and love poetry so bad that only actors with an overdeveloped aptitude for faux sincerity like Groucho Marx or Owen Wilson could get away with uttering it, Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play, Salome, has all the makings of a comedy. But unlike most of Wilde’s other works for the stage, such as The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance, Salome isn’t meant to be all that funny — at least not in the typical Wildean sense of the word. That I left Aurora Theatre Company’s production feeling like I’d experienced a metaphor for comedy rather than the thing itself could testify to the greatness of the play — or to its ineptitude. Trouble is, I’m not sure which.

The world of Salome couldn’t be further removed from the chattering Victorian drawing rooms and stinging one-liners of Wilde’s usual satirical landscapes. For one thing, the subject is very, very old: Set in the court of King Herod, the work retells the famous Biblical story about the martyrdom of John the Baptist at the hands of the princess Salome, who demands the prophet’s head on a silver platter in exchange for performing a seductive dance for the king. For another, so is the language: Steeped in a ponderous, archaic English of thees, thous, and “Behold! The Lord hath come”s and packed with over-perfumed descriptions, such as “She is like a narcissus trembling in the wind,” the play features little of the author’s characteristic wit. (It’s not as if anything is lost in translation, either; Salome was originally written in French and translated by Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, but both versions sound equally pompous.) With the exception of Queen Herodias’ Lady Bracknell-like comment, “I do not believe in miracles. I have seen too many,” before sending a servant scurrying off to fetch her fan, the rest of the dialogue would be out of place in any of Wilde’s other works.

The problem with performing Salome today is that it’s hard to know whether to play it straight or do it Dame Edna–style. The great temptation, given the author’s reputation as literary history’s greatest dandy, is to camp it up. In this respect, director Mark Jackson’s production goes all out. At the center of the comedy is Ron Campbell’s show-stealing performance as Herod. Swaggering tipsily about in a crimson velvet smoking jacket with a garland of matching roses upon his pate, the actor seems to be channeling another famous Herod — Josh Mostel’s in the 1973 movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Matched with Julia Brothers as the aloof and opinionated Queen Herodias (wearing a powder-blue gown and eye makeup with wings so voluminous they look like they might sprout feathers and take off, Brothers is a vision to rival Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra), the pair bickers hilariously like two old drag queens.

Yet at the same time, the production stops us from finding the kitsch characters and purple prose funny. As big as Campbell’s performance is, it’s also subtle: A marked vacuousness behind his bravura and ecstatic statements of happiness and one undone corner of a collar on an otherwise impeccably dressed picture of kingship are the only hints of the character’s weak, desperate nature. As Salome, Miranda Calderon ought to be a comic figure. The character’s constant demands (“Give me the head of Iokanaan!” “Suffer me to kiss thy mouth,” etc.) make her look like a spoiled little girl or a malfunctioning robot. Yet even in a girly, floaty flapper dress, Calderon’s deadpan delivery and strong physicality make us believe in her convictions. Far from coming across as capricious, this Salome seems as rooted to the Earth as an ancient oak. When Herod asks her to dance for him, the ensuing choreography is more frightening and alienating than it is erotic. Many of the awkward movements look like exaggerations of what they were intended to be. They should be funny, but somehow they’re not.

The effect of not quite knowing how seriously to take this play is disconcerting. Watching Salome, I found myself unable to distinguish between what I was feeling and an uneasy sensation that I ought to be feeling something else.

In some respects, my confusion could be a sign of artistic brilliance on the part of both the playwright and the production. After all, Salome is about the inability of humans to see things for what they really are, even as they cling to symbols. Throughout, characters grasp for metaphors in an attempt to make sense of the people and phenomena around them. Transfixed by the incarcerated prophet Iokanaan (whom Herod has imprisoned in a cistern but refuses to kill for superstitious reasons), Salome does her best to articulate her feelings: “Thy body is white, like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed. Thy body is white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judæa, and come down into the valleys. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body ... ” — she drones on in a similar vein for several more lines. But no simile can help the princess express her emotions or elicit the desired response from the object of her flattery. Watching the characters fumble around, heaping comparison upon comparison, could be hilarious, but here it’s just disturbing. Jackson’s use of invisible props, from wine glasses and cigarettes to pools of blood and the severed head, cleverly underscores the point the play makes about the hopelessness of metaphor: For unlike the characters’ poorly articulated fears and desires, we know what these objects are, even though we can’t see them.

On the other hand, my game of second-guessing might hint at inadequacies in Jackson’s vision and Wilde’s text. A neurotic, schizophrenic energy fizzes throughout the production — it’s there in the jerky movements of the toadying servants, in Salome’s mood swings, and in Ioakanaan’s sudden outbursts from the depths of the cistern, as well as in the constantly changing, violently colored lights and the spasms of sound. It’s as if Jackson hasn’t quite decided what he thinks of Wilde’s weird play. Salome staggers under so many directorial ideas that it’s often impossible to understand what’s going on. Most baffling, for instance, is Jackson’s decision to merge the character of the Young Syrian, who kills himself when he can’t cope with the outcome of Salome’s demands, and the executioner, Naaman. Joel Rainwater delivers a precise physical performance in both capacities, but with Jackson’s hyperreal aesthetic and Wilde’s heavy symbolism, we’re not sure whether we’re supposed to view the characters as distinct beings or two halves of the same resurrected soul.

The bottom line is that it’s hard to stage Salome today. Playing it straight is out of the question when you’re dealing with such things as a prophet babbling portents of doom from the bottom of a well and lines like “Bring me ripe fruits.” Playing it for fun alone isn’t an option, either, because to do so is to skimp on the symbolism for the sake of easy laughs. Treading a middle way, as Aurora does, is tough and satisfying, but just as problematic. Like a metaphor, it ends up being a shadow of the thing it aspires to be.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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