Turn aside all you think you know about the fabled Salomé and her brief mythic encounter with John the Baptist. Acclaimed Director Yael Farber has boldly and confidently reconstructed the deeply-rooted, sexualized Salomé canon into a provocative, mystical, radical new telling.
Farber is a wondrous dare-devil in her reconstructed tale of 1st century A.D Judean turmoil. She places interactions between Salome and Iokanaan (John the Baptist) at center-stage. It is their deliberate actions that set off the fires of Hebrew revolt against Roman occupation.
“I want to create the possibility that this woman [Salomé], living under an occupying regime, came to a deep understanding of her selfhood, one that allowed her to drive forward a political agenda.” said Farber in Shakespeare Theatre’s marketing materials.
In her retelling, Farber conceives an un-named mature woman (a dignified, graceful Olwen Fouere) to provide a “feminine narrative.” She is a womanly presence, a narrator always on stage and in-sight. She is a female long in memory survivor and recorder taking the audience back and forth across time and geography.
With her remarkable, disquieting adaptation of a tale many of us thought we knew from a few lines in the New Testament, some Roman sources and Oscar Wilde’s erotic, decadent femme fatale approach, Salomé, Princess of Judea, is no longer a youthful, sexualized being acting in pique. She is no longer dancing a Dance of Seven Veils for her captivated step-father, then asking for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. The motives for the beheading go way deeper into markedly political and spiritual worlds, was my take-away.
So, what are the sources for Farber’s deconstructed/reconstructed interpretation? According to program notes, Farber searched beyond the usual sources to garner background uses as examples a Babylonian myth of Queen Ishtar with her miraculous visit to the Underworld and the sensuality of the Biblical Song of Songs to name two sources.
Then, Farber connected her vision of Salomé to the historically turbulent times of mounting Jduean anarchy around A.D. 63. It is a time when Rome tried to subdue and colonize Judea knowing there was “a need to shed blood in order to civilize” as Farber puts in the mouths of one her Roman characters. After all, civilization meant “clean water from aqueducts” with “everyone is for sale” according to the various Romans that populate Farber’s Salomé.
But in the deserts of Judea were headstrong zealots unwilling to negotiate, let alone compromise with Roman colonizers. “There was a stench of the future” is how Farber’s Iokaan describes it. The Romans must be removed. But how?
After an unworldly transcendent, if not heavenly encounter with the imprisoned Iokanaan, a formerly unsure of herself Salomé acquires self-confidence. She places herself on the side of spirituality and the insurgency. She will serve a coming upheaval in her own way. In a single action leading to Iokaan’s beheading, Salome become the explosive charge that starts a revolution. Is she an angel with a suicide belt?
As Salomé, Nadine Malouf exudes a serene intensity, clear fierceness and confidence as she internalizes the lessons Iokanaan has provided. When we see her at her most vulnerable; when completely unadorned and standing stately and soundlessly, Malouf appears at peace with herself. She is disrobed, but far from naked. She is a sensual ascetic as she is baptized by Iokanaan. As an Arabic-speaking Iokanaan (but regularly translated by another character) Ramzi Choukair is vividly magnetic, masterful prophetic otherworldly presence. A man speaking in tongues, yet understood. A man bringing fear to the Romans and Sanhedrins alike, with his charismatic powers over others. He was a man seeking out a Queen to carry forward the revolution he envisioned. He found her in Salomé.
There are a number of male characters in Farber’s Salomé. No matter who these men are; they are ultimately powerless once the real change agents, Salomé and Iokanaan take action. These men are ever-talkativ, power-brokers such as the compliant Hebrew High Priest Calaphas (Yuval Boim), the somewhat uncompliant Hebrew High Priest Annas (Jeff Hayenga), the appointed overlord Herod (Ismale Kanater) and a domineering Pontius Pilate (T. Ryder Smith). There are also key military male characters who are “no longer Hebrew, but soldiers” who have varying obedience to Roman rule (Elan Zafir and and Shahar Isaac). Richard Saudek is a prophetic as Yeshua the Madman who sees the future but is not believed.
Under Farber’s direction, the production has a highly stylized formal, if not ritual-like approach and repertoire. With the guidance of Ami Shulman, movement director, there are very precise, sharp, clear-cut movements and poses. Scenic and Costume Designer Susan Hilferty matches Farber’s vision with a minimal set but with some major theatrical devises and surprises. Sand, water, flowing huge curtains, a well-used turntable and the spectacular use of a 15-foot ladder add amazement to the production. Donald Holder’s chiaroscuro lighting design has formidable use of spotlights while Mark Bennett’s softly percussive music composition and sound design are springboards into this Salomé are choral riffs from singers Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana.
The production crossed into contemporary times design elements including scenes that strongly match photographs from Abu Ghraib prison and its iconic hood photo. There are moments of water-based interrogation of Iokanaan, that are palpable visual associations to water-boarding.
We can never will know what really happened or why out there in the desert or in Jerusalem. But, Yael Farber makes a great case for point-of-view with this dominant, authoritative argued case indeed. As she wrote; “I don’t want to shy away from the great danger of the feminine, from the notion of powerful sensuality attendance in this story. Of course women are dangerous. That is the beautiful things about us.”
You may not agree with Farber, but this Salomé is a confident creation that is nervy and gutsy. It is an intriguing, provocative production that is meant to instigate reactions. It is a consummate part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
For those with the taste for a radical theatrical experience with a new outlook to assault old ways take a chance and visit with Salomé. It will be a rare experience.
One last note, there are many talkbacks scheduled, which will allow you to express your feelings and opinions about this production
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Salomé plays through November 8, 2015 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.
Note: Farber was produced in this area in 2013 with her Mies Julie. Here are two reviews on DCMetroTheaterArts and ShowBizRadio.