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Review: Stunning and Provocative SALOME at the Shakespeare Theatre Company

SALOMÉ is a visually stunning world premiere that brings us deeply complex characters struggling for command and dignity in one of history's most highly contested strips of land. Yaël Farber, the award-winning adaptor-director, returns to the Shakespeare Theatre Company after her great success MIES JULIE, which looked at Strindberg's work through the lens of post-apartheid South Africa. With SALOMÉ she has shaped a compelling work of power and contradiction.

This production upends the traditional view of Salomé, considering her as principled and calculated rather than a monstrous harlot. Here, Salomé uses the tools she has - access, sensuality, brains - to effect change. Even within the limitations society placed on her, she sees opportunity.

The character at the core of the production is portrayed by two actors simultaneously. Salomé, who famously dances before the king and demands the head of John the Baptist, is depicted by an assured and forceful Nadine Malouf. At the same time Olwen Fouéré "begins at the end" of the tale as the Nameless Woman (in recognition that nowhere in the New Testament accounts is her name given - which the director sees as an apt metaphor for the "ways in which women were erased from the ancient scriptures"). Fouéré is our narrator and guide to this occupied territory and treacherous relationships. As the Nameless Woman, Fouéré brings a dignity and force that propels the work.

Ramzi Choukair is a memorable Iokanaan (John the Baptist), the tortured prisoner, prophet, zealot and baptizer. Iokanaan's lines are scripted solely in Arabic, with the Nameless Woman sometimes offering translations. However, at a critical scene between Iokanaan and Salomé this language device becomes cumbersome in a moment needing heightened stakes. The international cast also features T. Ryder Smith as a Pontius Pilate fixated with taxation and aqueducts, Ismael Kanater as a vile Herod, Yuval Boim and Jeff Hayenga as local religious leaders, Richard Saudek is Yeshua the Madman, and Shahar Isaac and Elan Zafir are jailors. The cast also includes the haunting voices of singers Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana.

SALOMÉ is a highly physical show - not with extraneous motion but with a very deliberate positioning of bodies and shaping of movement. The work of Movement Director Ami Shulman helps us explore domination, vulnerability or power, all without a word uttered. In fact, we do not hear the voice of Malouf's Salomé until halfway through the production, though her thoughts, challenges, and beliefs are clearly revealed to us throughout.

The scenic design by Susan Hilferty is spare and gorgeous, each choice delivering maximum impact. The show begins stripped bare: a few sawhorses and chairs, exposed lighting instruments, actors spotted in the wings, and at center a simple lit grate. Layered in as the production continues are elements of sand, water, metal and cloth. A turntable offers an opportunity to contrast stillness and movement. The audience palpably reacted to imaginative use a huge ladder which people continued to discuss after the play's conclusion. Hilferty, who earned Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle awards for the costume design of WICKED, also designed SALOMÉ's costumes. The wardrobe is in the colors of soil and sand as if they come from the earth itself. The design reveals the flesh and muscle of bodies both vulnerable and powerful. Tony Award-winning lighting designer Donald Holder's work here brings us from painterly tableaux to a dank underground prison, drawing us in each time to what is essential. Composer and Sound Designer Mark Bennett's ambient music is another effective addition to the whole.

Because The Shakespeare Theatre Company's "resident playwright" penned his work 400 years ago it is highly unusual for the company to present world premiere productions, although several new adaptations or translations of classical works have been featured throughout the years. For the Women's Voices Theater Festival the company makes a bold departure by featuring a world premiere production influenced by classical texts (including the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Oscar Wilde's play, and ancient Arabic, Hebraic, and Babylonian texts). Rather than a playwright working in isolation on the script, the internationally acclaimed Farber worked with actors and designers to devise the play.

The Women's Voices Theater Festival was designed to highlight the scope of new plays written by women, but there is no requirement that the work address a woman's perspective or subject, yet Farber's SALOMÉ most certainly does, giving voice to a powerful female character. "I'm interested in telling a story that awakens the feminine narrative, that asks the questions: At what point do we own the possibility of political action? And why is feminine political agency so often written out?" states Farber.

SALOMÉ is an affecting production that is exquisitely beautiful to watch even as it challenges and provokes.

Runtime: 90 with no intermission

SALOMÉ is produced by The Shakespeare Theatre Company, presented at the Lansburgh Theatre (450 7th Street, N.W.) through November 8 (Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. There will be a post-show discussion after every evening performance.) For tickets, please visit the theater's website here.

The production contains nudity and graphic themes.

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman. Top: Olwen Fouéré, foreground, as Nameless Woman, with Nadine Malouf, left, as Salomé, and the cast of Yaël Farber's Salomé. Middle: Nadine Malouf as Salomé and Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan. Next: Nadine Malouf as Salomé. Bottom: The cast of Yaël Farber's Salomé at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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