When Women Wore Wings
"Of course, I plagiarize," Oscar Wilde once told Max Beerbohm. "It is the privilege of the appreciative." In Salome the master of drawing-room comedy borrowed freely from a variety of sources, including the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and Maurice Maeterlinck's 1889 play La Princesse Maleine. The play that resulted is perhaps the most idiosyncratic and least understood of Wilde's works—and one of the least produced. (More people have probably seen or heard Richard Strauss's opera or seen Aubrey Beardsley's famous woodcuts for the play's 1894 published edition.) Salome was never performed in England during Wilde's lifetime. In a harbinger of his ultimate clash with the morality police, he was refused a license to produce the play on the grounds that no work depicting biblical characters could be staged. The decision so enraged him that he threatened to renounce his English citizenship and go live in France—a threat that, sadly, he didn't carry out.
Salome may not be the best play Wilde ever wrote, but it is assuredly the most unfettered: its perfumed poetry and high-flown images do seem better suited to opera. The work teems with similes: the moon is variously described as looking like "a woman rising from the tomb," "a little piece of money," and "a little silver flower," while terrible portents present themselves in a sound like the "beating of giant wings." In this Side Project production the much-celebrated moon, represented by a crescent painted on the wall, looks like a semicircle of razor wire—which, for a play about the ways in which our appetites destroy the things we love, is wholly appropriate.
Remarkably, Jimmy McDermott's staging in the tiny Side Studio captures both the piece's outsize passions and its delicate poetic interludes. A few years ago McDermott did a masterful job with Sean Graney's The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide at the Side Studio, but that play—a stylized reinvention of a classic Japanese tragedy—seemed like a natural fit with the low-budget environment. Evoking the excesses of Herod's palace in a 32-seat storefront theater is much more daunting, but McDermott and his cast of 15 rise to the challenge. McDermott's cleverest touch, perhaps, is envisioning the setting as a sort of 1920s salon: scratchy gramophone music plays in the background, Herod's guests look like junior Gatsbys in their linen suits, and Salome wears a deconstructed flapper gown in an icy art deco blue. Of course the Roaring 20s resembled Wilde's era, the Gay 90s, and both periods work intellectually for a play set in a tumultuous time, on the brink of the Christian era.
The prophet John the Baptist—here called Jokanaan—is being held prisoner for speaking out against Salome's mother, Herodias, for marrying Herod after Herod killed his own brother, her husband (shades of Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet). Salome, lusted after by her stepfather/uncle, joins the soldiers guarding Jokanaan and asks that the prophet be brought out so that she can see him. When she does, her passions are inflamed—as is her rage when Jokanaan rejects her advances. This is the scene in which Wilde's elaborate language comes closest to self-parody: Salome switches between attraction and repulsion with schizophrenic intensity. But Eva Bloomfield, like the rest of McDermott's cast, understands that if an actor even comes close to winking at the excesses of Wilde's script, it falls apart. In addition to Bloomfield's mesmerizing Salome, strong performances come from David Dastmalchian as the young soldier who kills himself for love of her, Claudia Garrison as the acerbic and pragmatic Herodias ("The moon is like the moon, that is all"), and Jimmy Driskill as the conflicted, lustful Herod.
Salome is not the only famous female onstage at the Side Studio. In When Women Wore Wings, a collection of seven monologues, four playwrights present eight daring women, ranging from real-life heroines of flight Amelia Earhart and Christa McAuliffe to fairy-tale princesses Snow White and Rapunzel to the much maligned Medusa and Medea and the mother of us all, Eve.
Most of the monologues—especially Laura Sciortino's "Eve Redux," which seats Adam's wife in a witness box—lean too heavily on the device of a character pleading her case to the audience, demanding that we hear the "real story." It's not that there's nothing left to be wrung from reimagining misogynist tales from a feminist perspective—though admittedly it's well-trod ground. It's just that after a while the insistent fingers plucking at our sleeves backfire, actually undermining sympathy.
The most successful piece is the one lacking an iconic figure. In Tom Coash's "Thin Air," a nameless high-wire walker (Cary Cronholm) tries to talk herself back up on the wire after a tragedy. Coash's script blends fascinating tidbits of circus lore (Bird Millman was a wire walker who retired without ever having "come down," as insiders call falling) with a heartfelt meditation on risk. His honest appraisal of how often fear defines our choices is refreshing in an evening that otherwise veers toward girl-power rhetoric, even though it's sometimes delivered with wicked wit. Coash's language is nowhere near as majestic as Wilde's, but the tension between high-flying desire and bitter loss is just as compelling.
When: Through 3/20: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
Where: Side Studio, 1520 W. Jarvis
Price: $12-$15, $20 for this show and When Women Wore Wings
When Women Wore Wings
When: Through 3/20: Sun 7 PM
Where: Side Studio, 1520 W. Jarvis
Price: $10, $20 for this show and Salome
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Giau Truong.