Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, directed by Robert McNamara, rounds out SCENA Theatre’s 25th anniversary season with its second production of this controversial, yet classic, biblical tale. Billed as a “tale of love and passion,” Salomé (the title character is played by Irina Koval) tells the story of a princess’ evolving relationship with a mysterious prophet named Iokanaan (Joseph Carlson)—originally John the Baptist in the biblical source material. While Iokanaan foresees horrid things for the future, Salomé nonetheless falls madly in love with him; meanwhile, her stepfather Herod (Brian Hemmingsen) lusts after her, promising her anything in return for a seductive dance. When Salomé obliges, Herod—who is also the king/tetrarch—is obligated to give her the only thing that he dares not provide: the head of Iokanaan on a silver platter.
Originally scripted in French and produced first in London at the Palace Theatre in 1982, the play—presented in one act—is a refreshing tragicomedy. As what Director McNamara calls “an over-ripe gem of a play that abounds with hothouse images of lush and exotic language that the 21st century ear is not quite used to hearing,” the play satirizes British high society, mocking the absurdity of its fleeting obsession with attention and pageantry. Contrasted against the lavish lifestyle of high society, which is set suitably on an elevtated platform towards the rear of the stage set as a “balcony during a night at a party” is a deep well in which the pale-faced Iokanaan rests for the vast majority of the play—separated from the rest of the stage by only a dramatic pool of light.
The scenic design by Michael C. Stepowany and lighting design by Marianne Meadows are seamlessly integrated to draw focus to the action on stage while clearly delineating the various “sets” that serve as the backdrop for the various scenes. The overall minimalistic approach eliminates the need for props, and, instead, draws focus to the performances of its cast.
The minimalistic set allows for the audience to pay full attention to the colorfully nuanced performances of its cast. Irina Koval provides an unexpected and refreshing interpretation of Salomé; her fierce visage and suggestive dance choreographed by movement consultant Lee Ordeman and dance consultant Kim Curtis simultaneously conveys a degree of theatricality and vulnerability by the play’s end. Tetrach Herod is masterfully played by Brian Hemmingsen—who reprises his role as Herod from SCENA’s production of Salomé in 1988. The authority he takes as the Tetrarch is matched only by his masterful command of stage, executing each movement with purpose and urgency fitting of a king.
The two standout performances for are Rena Cherry Brown as Salomé’s mother Herodias and Joseph Carlson as Iokanaan. Brown’s portrayal of Herodias provides a critical element of comic relief throughout the play, providing an element of relatability that helps to translate this ancient biblical tale to the era in which the scene is set, and to even more recent times for today’s audiences. When she commands “You will not dance, my daughter!” to Salomé prior to the iconic dance sequence, the timeless motif of mother-daughter tension and adolescent resistance and angst clearly resonated with the audience; this degree of relatability is refreshing amidst ancient allegories and anecdotes that might otherwise seem foreign to the average theatergoer.
Finally, Joseph Carlson’s portrayal of Iokanaan is chilling and raw. Set shirtless and painted an eerie pale white color, Carlson manages to intertwine his voice, convulsing body language, and facial expressions to convincingly portray an exile who is consumed by his prophecies. The combination of his vigorous, trembling body and bulging eyes—coupled with his booming voice emphasized by chilling echoes (by Sound Designer/Composer Chris Kurtz)—create a frightening image that oscillates in the audience’s mind from serene to jolting.
Special attention must be given to the costume design by Elisa Mandel. The ensemble, which is dressed in black party apparel, is intricate and fitting of British high society, and helps to draw the stark distinction between the various socioeconomic strata. This is centrally important to the narrative of satire that Wilde espouses. The matching garb of Herod and Herodias are decadent—dripping with jewels and suggestive of their affluence. Salomé’s dress is revealing and fitting for the sexuality and power of the title character. Because the set itself is so minimalistic, the costumes are the key component of the production that alludes to the lavish life of British high society; ultimately, they’re more than fun to admire, they play a critical role in providing narrative context.
According to Director McNamara, Oscar Wilde “is without a doubt known as an author of light comedies—almost always deliciously phrased and abounding with bon mots ridiculing the manners and mores of the British upper classes.” Satire only makes sense given appropriate context, so I would recommend reading up (even if only briefly) on the history of this play before embarking to see Salomé. With the right context and the proper understanding that the play is, indeed, a satiric tragicomedy, SCENA Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé is an entertaining, provocative take on this ancient biblical tale.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Salomé plays through August 18, 2013 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.