"Personally I like comedy to be intensely modern, and like my tragedy to walk in purple and to be remote," Oscar Wilde wrote. He would have admired actor-director Steven Berkoff's staging of Salome, the poetic drama Wilde adapted from the biblical tale of the teenage temptress who lusted for John the Baptist. Berkoff, who plays Herod in this touring production (originally presented at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain), eschews the sumptuous exoticism generally associated with the material, opting for a dark, severe visual scheme and a dreamlike, slow-motion performance style that keep the audience at a distance from the story. Evoking silent films of the 1920s, Berkoff has his actors wear black tuxedos, white evening gowns, and whiteface; the cinematic effect is heightened by lighting dissolves that shift the action between Herod's banquet table and the prophet's cell. Wilde's lush, simile-packed dialogue, inspired by the Song of Solomon, is intoned with almost prayerful intensity by the actors, including the hypnotic Zigi Ellison as Salome; potentially gory scenes like John's beheading and a Syrian soldier's suicide are pantomimed so that the stark, midnight-blue color scheme isn't compromised by bloodletting. The result is likely to be a revelation for audiences familiar with the text only from Richard Strauss's overripe operatic setting: if Salome isn't the masterpiece its author thought it was, it's nonetheless a piece of powerful, audacious writing whose juxtaposition of pathos, sensuality, and irony is perhaps even more modern than Wilde's comedies. Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 722-5463 or 663-1628. Opens Thursday, October 12, 7:30 PM. Through October 14: Friday-Saturday, 8 PM. $24-$34.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Laurence Burns.