Oscar Wilde renounced convention with his tales of decadence and beautiful corruption—preferring the treacherous beauty of the poisoned apple to Victorian moralism. In their production of his tragedy, Salomé, Scena Theater spins the Janus coin of great beauty to show its counterpoint in sickness and corruption.
Their impeccable production of Salomé reaches through the fabric of beauty and refinement to grasp at the grotesque core of human desire.
The play begins with tinkling jazz piano, and the terrace of King Herod appears in cold, pale light. Herod’s courtiers make a creeping, stylized passage onto the stage, dressed in shimmering Jazz Age finery. Elegance, decadence, and pleasure—Wilde is at home in the 1920s. The palette is a frigid monochrome, with the moonlight casting dynamic plays of light over the beaded dresses and slick satin lapels.
The graceful costumes of the chorus are contrasted with sickly white face paint, and mouths outlined in smears of brownish red—as though they have been feasting on blood. The chorus moves in controlled, writhing patterns that evoke Fosse and Robert Wilson, and punctuate the play with bursts of hollow laughter. In the court of King Herod, it seems that drunken revelry can be interrupted by violence at any moment.
When Herod addresses the courtiers, it’s clear that their playful cruelty is underscored by a healthy dose of fear. One member of the chorus, Karin Rosnizeck, merits special mention. Dripping with affectation, Rosnizeck’s sickly beauty moved with the uninterrupted intention of a flamenco dancer. The chorus typifies the aesthetic of this production—juxtaposing the elegant with the grotesque, invoking Neoclassicism in a wholly modern vein.
At first, everyone is gazing at the moon—the perennial Symbolist canvas that can wear any metaphor. Soon, their gazes shift to the princess Salomé, played by Irina Koval with self-possession and withholding mystique. Salomé is looked upon by all, but she does not return a single glance. Her indifference generates a certain magnetism—collecting their gazes lends power and weight to her petite frame.
But Salomé’s calculated blasé is soon broken by the thundering voice of the imprisoned prophet Iokanaan, played by Joseph Carlson with ascetic, other-worldly intensity. Salomé is captivated by his voice, and demands that the guards show him to her. Salomé uses the necromancy of her withholding gaze to convince the King’s head soldier, the Young Syrian, to defy Herod’s orders. “Do this thing for me,” she bargains, “and I will look at you.”
Salomé finds herself enthralled by the mysterious prophet, but he refuses to look at her. Salomé is enraged by his indifference, which exposes a limit to her power. Koval interprets Salomé’s ire as a teenager’s pout, and quietly begins to plot her vengeance. “I will kiss your mouth, Iokanaan,” she repeats.
The boulder of tragedy begins to tumble. Herod, portrayed as a lustful and fearful king by Brian Hemmingsen, enters the terrace in pursuit of Salomé. “I lack nothing” he repeats, wondering at his unhappy mood, but it is clear what he lacks: Salomé. He is unable to tear his gaze from his wife’s daughter, over whom he seems to have no power. At this point, Herod and Salomé mirror each other—each is nearly all-powerful, but they are consumed with passion for the one thing they cannot have. Herod thinks to cure his malaise by bargaining with Salomé to dance for him, offering her anything she asks in return.
Closes August 18, 2013
Scena Theater at
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $20 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Herod is both Salomé’s uncle and the husband of her mother—this is an incestuous proposition that will defile her proud virginity, but she accepts. As Koval performs the dance of Salomé, she expends the magic of her beautiful indifference in a whirlwind of amoral eroticism. For a moment, King Herod thinks himself complete, until Salomé asks him for the one thing he is afraid to give—the head of Iokanaan. Hemmingsen’s Herod nervously entreats her, but she has become all-powerful, and demands that Herod incur the wrath of God for the sake of her vanity.
McNamara’s production of Salomé is one of juxtapositions—elegant costumes, grotesque characterization, a frigid gray design boiling over with eroticism. The acting does not always achieve these contrasts. Wilde’s text coils over itself, repeating certain lines with symphonic precision, but this production does not use these recapitulations to build urgency and intensity. The pace of the production is admirably controlled—but in light of the even tempo, I would have preferred some variety in the dynamics. Koval’s and Hemmingsen’s performance is captivating as they give the boulder of tragedy its initial push, but their epic scene fails to accrue momentum. The climax is executed with imaginative minimalism, and Koval leaves us on a high note in her necrophilic final scene.
Scena Theater’s Salomé is an impeccably stylized piece of theatre— arresting, grotesque, and erotic. All the elegance and decadence of Wilde are present in this heady and hedonistic reverie, both delightful and disturbing. Wilde’s Salomé is Racine without the moralism, Sophocles where the characters choose their fate—injecting neoclassical form with salacious pleasure. With an alluring cast and impeccable design, Scena Theater’s Salomé is a highlight of the season.
Salomé by Oscar Wilde . Directed by Robert McNamara . Featuring Irina Koval, Brian Hemmingsen, Rena Cherry Brown, Joseph Carlson, Armand Sindoni, Kim Curtis, Renata Loman, Karin Rosnizeck, Michael Miyazaki, Tom Byrne, Caroline Wolfson, and Tony Strowd.
Designers: Michael C. Stepowany (Set), Alisa Mandel (Costumes), Christopher Kurtz (Sound Design /Composer), Lena Salins (Stage Manager), Brittany Williams (Asst. Director), Anne Nottage (Literary Manager), and Gabriele Jakobi (Dramaturg). Produced by Scena Theater. Reviewed by J. Robert Williams.