Based on a biblical footnote about the death of John the Baptist, Oscar Wilde’s Salome was banned during rehearsals in 1892 and was never staged in his lifetime, which might lead one to assume it was part of Wilde’s precipitous decline and fall. Indeed, it was three years before his imprisonment for gross indecency and eight until his death in exile. But in fact Salome is an early play, contemporary with Lady Windermere’s Fan and before A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest (both 1895). The fact that his prime years as a playwright were so few only underscores the tragedy that he was cut off at the height of his literary powers.
It’s easy to see reasons to censor Salome in King Herod’s lascivious eye for his stepdaughter, his references to the beauty of male attendants, and the grotesque eroticism of the little princess’ obsession with the prophet Iokanaan. The mocking tone of religious debates in the play might be seen as flirting with blasphemy. But simply having biblical characters onstage at all was sufficient reason for banning at the time.
What truly distinguishes Salome from the contemporary comedies for which Wilde would become known is its poetic beauty, the simile-laden litanies in which Salome alternately rhapsodizes and vilifies the prophet’s body, hair, and mouth, or Herod describes his fantastic treasures to try to dissuade Salome from claiming her bloody prize. Much of the magic lies in artful repetition and juxtapositions. First a page describes the moon as a dead woman, Salome enters describing it as a beautiful virgin, and Herod sees in it a drunken woman looking for lovers.
The richness of Wilde’s dialogue is well served in Aurora Theatre’s production, directed by Mark Jackson, the acclaimed writer and director of Shotgun Players’ 2003 hit The Death of Meyerhold. Jackson is also credited as adapter, which seems unnecessary, as he takes no more liberties than does the average director of Shakespeare. Rather than approximating biblical dress, characters wear stylish tuxedos (costumes by Callie Floor) and mime cigarettes and cocktails as though in an idealized Jazz Age. Four courtiers play twice as many guests and palace personnel, leading to occasional confusion, as when someone commits suicide, only to reenter smirking and debating theology.
The use of Aurora’s theater in the round is striking. The preening courtiers often man all four exits in a subtle symmetry, and once the actors enter they never leave. Rather than booming damnation from offstage, Iokanaan hangs above the action in a tubular cage that resembles wind chimes (set design by Mikiko Uesugi), though actors speak down the hole beneath him as if he’s in the deepest dungeon.
Mark Anderson Phillips’ shirtless, bearded, and wild-haired Iokanaan seems tailor-made to be Salome’s plaything, gasping and writhing as if possessed. Miranda Calderon is believably bratty as Salome, gleaming with coquettish glee at the naughtiness of speaking to the prophet who maligns her mother. What’s harder to see is the power she wields, what hold she has on Herod aside from the lure of the Lolita. Her encounter with Iokanaan would be more effective if the prophet had more to resist than the childish pique of a girl who can’t hear “No.” After that scene she goes limp, emerging from virtual catatonia only to tantrum when it seems she might not get what she wants. Her descent into madness is largely unseen; there’s a sense that there might be something interesting going on behind her empty eyes, but it comes out mostly in her dance, jerking and staggering like a rag doll.
Ron Campbell’s Herod is the rock upon which this production is built. His portrayal is at first very funny, an idle and debauched buffoon of a monarch, regarding dead bodies and grim prophecies with a royal simper and self-satisfied chortle, and wooing his stepdaughter with guttural depravity as his Queen Herodias (poised and distant Julia Brothers) looks on with impassive contempt. But just as palpable is the desperation of an imperial fop risen far past his level of incompetence, pale and sweating at ill omens, losing his train of thought and jumping at shadows with the scarcely repressed awareness that he’s by no means entitled to his sense of entitlement. Only when his pleading with Salome reaches a fever pitch does his animation go slightly over the top and distract from the text, as he and the courtiers double over in unspecified agony.
It’s one of several directorial choices that don’t quite work. The miming of cigarettes, goblets, and swords adds to the overall impression of decadence, but it makes the actors look silly. Likewise Christopher Studley’s lights and Jake Rodriguez’s sound effects are sometimes overused, such as the throbbing drone and lowered lights whenever Iokanaan speaks, or the clatter of a mimed sword falling. Even portents mentioned in the text, such as the ominous beating of wings, seem as if they might be more effective if they were less literal.
“It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees,” Herod proclaims. It’s advice that might improve what’s already a strong Salome.