Historical plays have long been Mark Jackson’s bailiwick: He tackled the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in a 2010 remake of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, and based his 2011 opus, God’s Plot, on the first play ever staged in colonial America. But even those works don’t have quite as much complexity and intrigue as Jackson’s latest, Salomania, which he wrote and directed for Aurora Theatre. It dramatizes the criminal libel suit that a dancer named Maud Allan waged against a right-wing British tabloid in 1918. The story is intricate on its face, but Jackson bedecks it with subplots and side notes. For him, the famed court case is actually a framework to talk about sexuality, repression, xenophobia, and wartime paranoia. Like all of Jackson’s plays, it brims with big ideas, almost to the point of overreaching. Somehow, it’s still masterful.
That owes partly to Jackson’s knack for intercutting the story of Maud Allan with scenes that provide historical context. Played with near-perfect verisimilitude by Madeline H.D. Brown (aided by a flapper dress designed by Callie Floor), Allan is introduced via a quick timeline: The dancer moved from San Francisco to Berlin in 1895, the same year that author Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to a regimen of hard labor. In 1906 — six years after Wilde’s death — Allan produced her own version of his play, Salomé, a grisly biblical tragedy about a girl who requests the head of John the Baptist as a reward for performing the Dance of the Seven Veils. It quickly became her signature work and she was known, thereafter, as “the Salomé dancer.”
Jackson premiered his own version of Salomé at Aurora in 2006, so it seemed only fitting that he follow up with this one. The lives of Allan and Wilde are vastly interconnected, after all: Both waged libel suits; both were accused of moral depravity; both were subjected to prurient cross-examinations because of their sexuality (Wilde was famously gay; Allan was rumored to be bisexual). And Jackson sees other parallels between the two artists that might not be obvious on the surface. To him, the crucifixion of Allan, like that of her predecessor, mirrored the irrational, carnal violence of a war being waged nearby. Allan wasn’t just a pervert; she stood in for a German “Other.”
Jackson is famous for putting his own spin on classic yarns, so it’s to be expected that he won’t ever tell a story straight — even a great story, or one that’s already so complicated that it requires the director to use video intertitles and print an illustrated chronology in the program notes. He’s great enough to have that latitude, and he can trust that theatergoers in Berkeley are smart enough to follow along.
Still, it’s a testament to the skill of Jackson’s cast, and the shrewdness of his crew — especially set designer Nina Ball — that they can hold together such a wildly ambitious play. The courtroom drama itself is a long concatenation of red herrings: Initially, Allan sues Parliamentary fanatic Noel Pemberton-Billing (Mark Anderson Phillips) for publishing a licentious review of her performance in his paper, The Vigilante, under the provocative headline “The Cult of the Clitoris.” (Indeed, vast swaths of courtroom dialogue are dedicated to defining the term “clitoris.”) Pemberton-Billing turns the whole suit on its head, using it as a platform for his own bizarre conspiracy theories about Germans and gays, many of whom, he says, are named in something called “The Little Black Book.” He calls forth an odd slew of witnesses, including Wilde’s former lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent). The court becomes a forum for volleying innuendo. (According to Artistic Director Tom Ross, Jackson poached directly from court transcripts.) All of the characters appear to be closet homosexuals. Everyone speaks in a caricature-ish gay accent.
That’s a fine play by itself, but it’s too simple for Jackson, who has evidently fallen in love with the sex-war leitmotif. To bring that out, he sprinkles in a series of loosely-related scenes about World War I, all of which juxtapose trench warfare with sexual appetites: Not for nothing do a group of soldiers rhapsodize, in jarringly sensual language, about chocolate. Every actor except Brown has to do double- or triple-duty — some, like Marilee Talkington and Kevin Clarke, are saddled with four or five roles. Ball’s battlefield set, composed of dirt, crates, and salvaged weapons, has to magically become a courtroom.
Jackson pulls it all together by placing high demands on everyone, including the audience. It’s a fabulous conceit that risks falling apart in the execution. That it coheres in the end — and even resonates with contemporary politics — is a triumph by itself, even if Allan’s story ends in misery.