Salome | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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SALOME

Interplay

A more sumptuous script than Oscar Wilde's Salome would be difficult to endure; his 75-minute poem-play is almost too gorgeous and ornate for a first hearing. Wilde wrote it in 1881, in flawless French, for Sarah Bernhardt, and her grandiloquent flair inspired him to heights of sensuous imagery and chartreuse prose previously unknown.

But censors halted the production during rehearsals because of its sexual outspokenness and blasphemous depiction of a Bible story. When the script was published, a reviewer from the Times of London called it "an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive, and very offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred." Salome finally premiered in France in 1896, with Bernhardt in the title role (the recently imprisoned playwright never saw it). Max Reinhardt staged it in Germany in 1902; but it was banned in England even for private performance until 1905, the year in which Richard Strauss transformed it into the libretto of his opera. The English version (translated by Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's lover) was not performed in public until 1930.

This pillorying seems odd: the plot follows the Bible's simple, ugly story, and little in Salome is more salacious than the verse in the Song of Solomon. Salome is a princess loved too well by her stepfather, Herod Antipas. Feeling cursed by his childless marriage to Herodias, Salome's mother, Herod has succumbed to a general sybaritic indulgence, and smitten by his stepdaughter, agrees to grant her anything if she performs the right dance with the correct veils.

Just as Herod covets what he should not, Salome desires her nemesis, the ascetic prophet John the Baptist (here called Iokanaan). Salome hates him for having awakened in her virgin heart the first stirrings of raw lust; John reviles her as a whited sepulcher and a modern Whore of Babylon. When he doesn't return her yearning, her hatred turns to homicide: if she can't win him in life, she'll get him in death. Salome demands and receives the head of the prophet on the proverbial platter.

Interplay offers a tepid staging that's further hampered by its tiny studio stage, and director Paul Frellick's clumsy blocking worsens the crush: he moves the actors around like a chess player without a strategy. This mannered production, remarkably unencumbered by solid performances, is especially weak in the erotic conviction that's crucial to kindling Wilde's poetry.

Though attractive enough, Debra Ann Miller's Salome seems to be enduring a mere schoolgirl crush; Salome's overpowering infatuation, which makes a sudden shift from lust to bloodlust, gets lost in Miller's unfocused emoting. When she screams "I shall kiss thy mouth!" it should curdle our blood, knowing the revenge to come. But no, if this Salome is unhinged, it's strictly by-the-numbers. Likewise her disco-dumb dance. Jeffrey Frace plays the ranting holy man with a one-note stentorian frenzy; he doesn't make Iokanaan's rage for purity connect with Salome's sudden rush to corruption.

The "supporting" roles are wooden and jerky. Intent on underlining Herod's insecurity, Michael Hildebrand overstates the man's guilty distraction. Deb Seigel plays the truly debauched, vengeful Herodias with pouty boredom; where she should palpably delight in Salome's desire to wipe out Herodias' accuser, this burnt-out woman seems to consider it just one more panic in the palace. The other portrayals, which range from melodramatic to mechanical, seem to have been worked out as afterthoughts.

Whether it's intentional or not, Andrew J. Dahlman's set resembles a large, gray padded cell. You keep waiting for a shrink to enter and halt the patients' psychodrama.

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