Oscar Wilde’s play Salome presents performance challenges, whether in the original French (Wilde was experimenting) or in translation. It can also offer rewards, as it does in the artful and well-acted current production at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, newly translated and directed by James Rutherford.
The production has two focal points. First is an outstanding dance, enhanced by projections, choreographed by Jess Goldschmidt, and strikingly performed by Laura Butler Rivera in the title role.
Second is an extravagant characterization of Herod Antipas by Marty Keiser. The performances overall, but Keiser’s in particular, strike a nice balance between stylized comic costume-drama and tragic realism. Lisa Tharps matches him wit for wit in the smaller but important role of his wife Herodias.
The play resonates on multiple levels. The opening scene, reminiscent of the start of Hamlet, finds secondary characters focused on a portentous moon. They also comment on the recently arrived prophet Iokanaan (John the Baptist), whom Herod has come to favor. And they note bickering Pharisees and Sadducees. (A later scene centering on the quarreling Jews contributes a bright dose of humor.)
All this sets the scene: Judea at the time of Jesus. A young Syrian (a raw, strong performance by Alexander Reed), a captain of Herod’s guard, is chastised for gazing offstage at the princess Salome, in a word-for-word foretaste of Herod’s own obsession with her and conflict with Herodias about it.
Herod’s fixation on his daughter-in-law and demand that she dance for him recalls Greek drama as much as Shakespeare – think of the entranced women of Euripides’ The Bacchae. In this sense Salome also jibes with today’s #MeToo movement, as women speak truth to the power of the male gaze. The Tetrarch’s pestering of Salome to dance for him literally embodies women’s objectification.
The twist, of course, as anyone familiar with the New Testament knows, is the price Salome exacts for her dance. Herod will give her anything but what she asks, and to tempt her to change her mind he regales her, and us – at exasperating length – with a sumptuous catalogue of his riches.
But having witnessed Salome’s long encounter with Iokanaan, we know she won’t relent. She has become as mesmerized by the prophet (Feathers Wise, mystically charismatic, though hard to understand because of too much reverb) as the men around her become with Salome.
The dance is a triumph, both lovely to look at and viscerally impactful, steely and slinky.
Supporting the excellent performances of the main roles are crafty and evocative sound design and eye-pleasing, ontologically symbolic costumes. The flaws lie in the play itself: Salome’s scene with Iokanaan and (especially) Herod’s attempt to woo her away from her demand lose force as they drag on and on despite the actors’ marshaling all their skills to try to keep the momentum going. Rutherford’s admirable translation stays close to the original, giving us Wilde indeed, flaws and all. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who remains one of our most fascinating literary personalities more than a century after his death.
Presented by M-34 Productions and the New York International Fringe Festival, Salome runs through 27 October at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Visit the website for schedule and tickets.