Luckily, Bridge Repertory Theater director Olivia D’Ambrosio has not taken message-mongering to heart in this lively production of a rarely produced play.
Salomé by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Staged by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston at First Church Boston, 66 Marlborough Street, Boston, MA, through October 18.
By Bill Marx
Oscar Wilde subtitled Salomé “A Tragedy in One Act.” Should this be taken as a typical Wildean wisecrack, given his hyper-sexualized treatment of the Grand Guignol in the New Testament story? The prophet’s head is served on a platter for the spurned young Salomé to kiss after she dances, in memorably erotic fervor, to please her lascivious stepfather Herod. Or did Wilde mean something serious by using tragedy? I think he did, and not just because Salomé is murdered at the end.
In a sense, Salomé presents an intermingling of spiritual and physical desires so extreme they kill. The innocent Salomé falls in lust with the physical beauty of the prophet Jokanaan, who adores Jesus and forecasts mass death for decadent unbelievers, while Herod desires to sully the beauty of Salomé, who is also adored by the Captain of the Guard, who kills himself at the sight of her undercutting her purity by coming onto Jokanaan. For all of the play’s pseudo-Biblical hysterics (which was partly responsible for the fact that it couldn’t be performed in England for decades), there is still something playfully transgressive about the 1891 piece, a death-wish conflation of soul and sex, innocence and experience, that anticipates the plays of Tennessee Williams and a host of others. Of course, that does not deny the great fun of seeing illicit desires run rampant in so outré a fashion.
Thus, dramaturge Bridgette Hayes’s contention in the program notes that the work serves as “a precursor of a more enlightened era of sexual freedom” feels somewhat off base to me, a sop to our need to be served (on a silver platter?) a message of “empowerment,” even in a tragedy. Erotic freedom destroys these characters as surely as repression does; Herod killed his brother in order to marry Salomé’s mother; Jokanaan is offed because of Salomé’s libido. Wilde wanted to depict a perfectly closed system—Jesus represents the apocalyptic (at least according to Jokanaan) way out of the world’s corruption.
Luckily, Bridge Repertory Theater director Olivia D’Ambrosio has not taken message-mongering to heart in this lively production of a rarely produced play. She has made some fairly risky decisions, some of which pay off, others which do not. Wilde’s text (it was originally written in French; the author of the English translation remains a mystery) has been retained, but the narrative takes place in 1970, with the audience seated (cabaret style) at tables in a ‘palace’ space that looks as if it has been set up for a tacky wedding reception or post-Bar Mitzvah nosh, with The Carpenters providing pop background music. I was Bar Mitzvahed about that time, and the sight of Wilde’s Jews—sporting yarmulkes and arguing about arcane matters—triggered one hell of a Proustian flashback.
Others may not be so sentimental about the period. The atmosphere and costumes are enjoyably campy, though it is not at all clear why the text was put in the time machine. That confusion typifies the Bridge Rep’s energetic effort, which see-saws between the perceptive and the ham-fisted. D’Ambrosio uses the space well, with the characters rushing between the tables, soldiers standing near the theatergoers while they glimpse Salomé lounging outside of the window. Locating Jokanaan’s prison upstairs creates some problems—the text refers to a cistern and it is difficult to make out what Woody Gaul’s suitably hunky prophet is ranting about because of the bad acoustics. D’Ambrosio can be nuanced and then amateurish. On the one hand, the Captain of the Guard’s move toward stabbing the offending Salomé before killing himself (the script just has him committing suicide) is a deft touch, but having a soldier stand (and ham it up) while holding the head of Jokanaan on a platter is unfortunate, a miscalculation compounded by having the guards improvise sighs and sounds of disgust every time Salomé approaches the severed noggin to give it a kiss. They, like the rest of us, should be shocked into silence.
The performances are also a mixed bag. Shura Baryshnikov makes for a lovely Salomé, but she is a bit too callow and clueless throughout. Early on, the character is more knowing about her sexual appeal than she lets on—and we need much more than a semi-primal growl or two to convey that the woman is in the self-destructive grip of an overwhelming passion, a yearning for the forbidden that turns psychotic. Alas, Baryshnikov’s dance before Herod is more athletic than sensual. As for Robert D. Murphy’s Herod, let’s say that his portrait of a sexually obsessed authoritarian is a bit…over the top. He doesn’t temper Wilde’s long speeches, shifting emotional gears from longing to lounging. He delivers them all at a full roar. As for Murphy’s depiction of Herod’s voyeurism—his tyrant seems to be demanding that Salomé do a lap dance rather than ‘the dance of the seven veils.’ Perhaps this undermining of the play’s sex-as-tragedy theme is a byproduct of the updating, which works against the operatic poetry of Wilde’s dialogue. There’s nothing like the sugary strains of “We Have Only Just Begun” to bulldoze decadence and desire into the realm of the cute.
Still, this production continually holds your attention, via the commitment of the performers and director and Wilde’s marvelously empurpled language, which includes flickers of his wit. Herod is OK with all of Jesus’s miracles but his raising the dead. “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to do that,” he fumes, alarmed at the prospect of the wrong people getting another crack at life. Unfazed, Bridge Rep hasn’t been afraid to resurrect a notorious vamp.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007, he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.