While watching Oscar Wilde's Salome, you understand why it's rarely performed. That doesn't mean M-34's world premiere of director James Rutherford's (founding artistic director) new English translation is without merit. Initially written in French and translated poorly by Wilde's lover Bosie, the play was dismissed as odd and prurient — after all, Salome does perform the dance of the seven veils.
The story follows Herod Antipas (Marty Keiser), the Tetrarch of Judea, and his inappropriate attraction to his wife’s daughter, Salome (Laura Butler Rivera). This is not new territory for the Tetrarch who came to power after marrying Herodias (Lisa Tharps), his older brother’s wife. Salome has an unhealthy attraction of her own — to Iokanaan (Feathers Wise), a prophet her step-father is holding captive in the same damp well that once imprisoned her father. Wise, a transwoman, offers an ethereal presence with his porcelain skin, high cheekbones and earthy, silky voice. It is easy to believe he is a god’s vessel.
This world does not offer love, but alienation. Passion leads to ruin, destruction and death. A young Syrian, Narraboth, looks at Salome longingly. His companion tells him, “You are looking at her. You look at her too much. You shouldn’t look at people like that. Something bad will happen.”
Her words are prophetic, for it is his desire to please the princess that propels the plot forward as he gives the spoiled Salome access to the prophet. “Your mouth is like a branch of coral found by fishermen in the twilight sea,” Salome says to him longingly. “Like vermilion from the mines of Moab. Like the bow of the Persian King, painted with vermilion and set with horns of coral. There is nothing in the world so red as your mouth. Let me kiss your mouth.” But the prophet spurns her, cursing her as a “daughter of Babylon” and a “child of adultery.”
Lara de Bruijn (Costume Design), Oona Curley (Scenic Design), Kate McGee (Lighting Design), Mike Costagliola (Sound Design) provide a simple set, with white drapes in place of the well that imprisons the prophet. The sheerness allows the audience to view the soothsayer in shadow before his form is revealed.
The play explores the baseness of humanity, showcasing its fear of the unfamiliar. The persecution of Iokanaan is cruel, but no meaner than the callousness displayed by how the royals treat their slaves. When a soldier kills himself, the Tetrarch is only concerned about his feast saying, “What is this corpse doing here? Do you think I am like the king of Egypt who never holds a feast without showing his guests a corpse? Come on! Who is this? I don’t want to look at him.” For the remainder of the party, he and his guests sit amidst the floor’s bloodstains. When Herodias asks her slave for her fan, she hits her and says, “You have a dreamer’s look. You shouldn’t dream. Dreamers are sick.” In this world where dreams are discarded and suicide is ridiculed, the people that inhabit it are monstrous, unable to see beyond their own desires and belief systems.
At times, the action intoxicates even as it horrifies. Several scenes are too long — Salome’s dance, a titillating and disturbing series of undulations as the room darkens and her image is reflected on her veil, is initially discomforting and intimate, though the moment’s power fades the longer it lingers (Choreography by Jess Goldschmidt and Projection Design by Wladimiro Woyno). The Tetrarch, whose vocal inflections sometimes sound like Donald Trump speaking at a rally, also has a speech that lasts past its effectiveness. Overall, though, Salome acts as a cautionary tale about the ruthlessness of people and the easy acceptance of horrific acts by those that surround them.
Salome is performed at the Irondale (85 South Oxford St.) in Brooklyn. Running time: 95 minutes. Through Oct. 27th. For more info visit https://www.M-34.org