Only the Victorian Era could merge elements of the Bible, striptease, necrophilia and a temper tantrum. Only Oscar Wilde would write it. For her senior project in theater studies, Jenny Nissel ’08 now brings it to the stage.
Directed by Emma Lunbeck ’08, the Biblically inspired, yet artistically licensed “Salome” goes up this weekend in Dwight Chapel. Pushing ancient innuendos to perverse new heights, “Salome” transforms the innocence of a petulant child’s crush into psychopathic infatuation befitting only a simultaneous stalker, lunatic, necrophiliac and all-around creeper. By the stroke of Wilde’s pen, Salome is solidified as the original femme fatale.
Wilde’s account details a night in the life of the play’s namesake wherein she single-handedly orchestrates the murder of a holy prophet. After John the Baptist, called Iokanaan (Corey Finley ’11) spurns her affections, Salome (Nissel) forces his beheading by seducing her stepfather Herod (Josh Odsess-Rubin ’08) with her infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Only then may she kiss the prophet’s lips in morbid pleasure — before being executed herself.
It is difficult to maintain an investment in the telling of a tale so riddled with the King’s English, but this production circumvents the apparent obstacle by astutely highlighting the subtleties. The skillful interpretation of the script results in a production that succeeds in the risky endeavor of staging a distanced and esoteric narrative — a feat made all the more impressive by promoting interaction between a divorced contemporary audience and largely footnoted historical allusion.
A challenging and impressive component of this production is its sheer continuity. For the actors, there is no break, no off-stage respite. They enter through the doors of the chapel and remain there for the duration of the play. Each constantly interacts with his surroundings, never breaking character for a moment — the only exceptions being switching into yet another role. Their genuine commitment is the driving force of the production.
There are certainly times at which this rather lengthy tour-de-force, at roughly an hour and 45 minutes, drags, but these instances are mitigated by their dedication. Were it not for their commitment to truly animating the treasures Herod describes ad naseum, the production would come to utter standstill just before resolution.
The audience is arranged along the sides of a rectangular space, situating them on the edge of participation. So when the actors turn to address the audience directly, there is an authenticity of interaction seldom experienced in auditorium seating. Given this configuration, the actors’ ability to navigate around the audience’s outstretched limbs is notable. The actors engage with the entirety of the room; even the musicians take part in the action. This production focuses a great deal on movement — in relation to the animate and inanimate, often blurring the distinction between these categories.
It is clear that Lunbeck understands the strengths and weaknesses of her space, as the blocking often capitalizes on the acoustic quality of the chapel. The scene in which an impotent Herod finally resigns to give Salome what she demands quite literally surrounds the audience, engulfing it into a somber melody that invokes an eerie foreboding. When not skillfully exploiting this feature, however, there are times during which critical nuance is lost through rapidly paced exchanges muddled by the resounding echoes of previous speakers.
Yet, the bulk of nuance through instances of humor is revealed in a production otherwise wrought with drama, intrigue and disturbance. Odsess-Rubin’s mastery of comedic timing and emotive expression often dominates the production, while the more incremental humor of the mere attitude of The Ambassador (Maya Seidler ’11) augment the textured tone.
Still, this most recent manifestation of Wilde’s tale does not entirely counterbalance the awkwardness of the written piece — and it does not intend to. The purposeful use of darkness and light to emphasize cryptic makeup and instances of necrophilia, combined with the leering seduction, pedophiliac undertones and uncanny acrobatics of the virgin Salome’s dance through blood (aptly symbolized by red rose petals) convince one of that fact.
Clearly, the play is not here to entertain an audience so much as present an artistic display. While not art for art’s sake, it certainly isn’t entertainment for its own sake either. “Salome” is an acquired taste — one that requires a relatively open mind to experience. It engages with themes of the “bitter taste” of love in an unconventional way, allowing even those only drawn to togas, sandals and Roman mythology to interrogate its distinction from insanity.