BWW Reviews: Villanova's SALOME - A Stunning Performance of an Underperformed Classic
Oscar Wilde, despite his great success as a playwright, managed to write one play that was completed but never produced on stage in his lifetime - SALOME, which he originally wrote in French, and which was originally translated into highly stylized, obscurantist English by Lord AlFred Douglas. The recent translation by Joseph Donahue, into a contemporary and more colloquial, but nonetheless still poetic, English, has been brought to the Villanova Theatre stage by director David Cregan in a production that is worthy of considered attention.
Superficially, the publicity for the play suggested that Cregan had robbed the Diane Paulus playbook - if in doubt, add a circus element; it was noted in advance that an aerial circus element, using aerial silks, was being added to the show. Fortunately, although the aerial silk dance is in the show, there is no real circus addition - it's a new, and extremely interesting, piece of choreography for Salome's famous dance.
And it is not the only interesting or novel addition that makes sense for this show. Wilde was, like many writers of his time, fascinated by Orientalism; Cregan highlights that interest by adding not only to the sights of the play but to the sounds. The cast was trained by an area cantor in Hebrew chant during rehearsals, and, given the amount of death in Wilde's interpretation of the story, the sounds of the Kaddish being chanted throughout are both authentic and logical, as is the accompanying drumming by Josh Totora. Taking Donohue's recent translation along with Cregan's insight into the original story and his fresh take on the sights and sounds for Herod's palace and its intrigues, the result is visually stunning and altogether satisfying. The sparseness and darkness of Parris Bradley's set contrasts with the lushness of texture and color in the costumes designed by Janus Stefanowicz, while Jerold Forsyth's lighting design is worthy of note.
The cast is uniformly fine. Peter A. Danzig as Iokanaan (John the Baptist) leaves little if anything to be desired; he is the epitomal picture of a captive who may be madman, or prophet, or a little of both, while Jen Jaynes shines as Herodias, the Queen, the primary victim of Iokanaan's wrath and indignation. Seth Schmitt-Hall makes a fierce yet human Herod, distracted by his wife's vituperation and his stepdaughter's developing eroticism; Lizzy Pecora is a Salome who can discomfit an audience with what appears to be as little effort as it takes for her to distract her stepfather. Brendan Farrell is compelling as the tragic young Syrian captain of the guard, and Emily Poworoznek equally so as Herodias' young, dreamy page. This reviewer at first was concerned that the casting of a female as Herodias' page gave an overly charged erotic dynamic to the friendship of the page and the Syrian captain - but then, this is written by Wilde, so one must allow for the possibility that Cregan has merely highlighted a dynamic that was always intended to be there.
The aerial dance previously noted is of course Salome's dance (never originally known as the "dance of the seven veils"); sheer draperies surrounding a terrace turn into hanging veils that Salome eventually climbs. This moment, her erotic pursuit of Iokanaan, and her final scene with Iokanaan's head are the most riveting moments of the production, which Cregan treats, and Pecora delivers, with a finely handled eroticism and an utter lack of sentimentality. The result, in all three cases, is necessarily disturbing and justly so. This is not a play that was ever intended to leave an audience happy and refreshed at its conclusion; it is not one of Wilde's comedies of manners, but a pure tragedy that begins in disturbance and ends in horror. Properly treated, as here, there is sufficient humor at incidental moments to prevent it from becoming unbearable, but it still possesses the capacity to shock even a jaded audience.
Cregan notes that Salome's desire is not merely sexual, but is a search for self-realization as well, a desire for something more, without necessarily knowing what that "more" is. Her journey, and Herodias', are powerful indictments of a system - the Victorian social system, as much if not more than the Judean one superficially depicted - that leaves women powerless except insofar as they can manipulate men, and then condemns them for their use of sex. In Salome's case, her fascination with Iokanaan's prophecies and her loathing of his preachings against her mother collide head-on with her awakening sexuality, and, in the time in which this play dwells, the results could only be the disaster Wilde depicted.
Most of the shows at Villanova are worth seeing - this is emphatically so. SALOME is under-performed to begin with, and a solid production of it is even more of a rarity. In all respects, this is very likely to be one of the most satisfying shows of the entire season for most audiences.
On the Villanova Theatre stage until April 21, and well worth the trip. Call 610-519-7474 or visit theatre.villanova.edu for tickets.
Photo Credit: Paola Nogueras