If you want to get your hands on a major center of innovation in Washington theatre, a production that draws from some of the best talent our area has to offer and is relentless in its pressure on the artistic envelope, get thee to Scena Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s classic Salomé. Director Robert McNamara has gathered an international team of artists, from his dramaturg Gabriele Jakobi to veterans of the Synetic theatre, to produce a truly fascinating evening. The results may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the aesthetically adventurous it is one of the most rewarding stage experiences to be had this summer.
With his emphasis on intricate choreography and highly stylized vocal technique, McNamara has created a show that would be at home in any art-house in Amsterdam or Berlin; Don’t come to the Atlas Performing Arts Center expecting a traditional narrative, told in pedestrian main-stream terms: come prepared to re-examine an old classic, performed in a style that is as forward-looking as it is rooted in the tradition Wilde evokes.
Originally written in French—a language Wilde cherished—Salomé was created in an era when the theatre in Europe was experimenting with Symbolism. This aesthetic movement had emphasized the spiritual aspects of theatre and found inspiration in Medieval Christianity with its saint’s plays, icons, etc. Wilde, ever the iconoclast, reversed that equation and used Salomé to explore the aesthetic aspects of religion, using the obsessions of a Biblical princess as an allegory for a pure, aesthetic experience. McNamara still seems to have taken some of the Symbolist principles to heart and with the help of dance consultant (and cast member) Kim Curtis this Salomé features a series of finely-honed tableaux vivants, set to the music of the actor’s voice—with occasional witty keyboard-commentary provided by composer Chris Kurtz.
The action is set in a vaguely Gatsby-esque 1920s villa, decked out in silvery tones evocative of the silent movie era. Alisa Mandel’s costumes stand out for their variety and textures (black and white make a far more interesting palette than you might think), and Michael C. Stepowany’s multi-leveled set helps to reinforce the distinctions of class and fortune between Herod’s courtiers and the central, tragic figure of Iokanaan (John the Baptist).
The cast has many strengths beginning with Joseph Carlson’s brooding, intense Iokanaan; Carlson sits center-stage, disheveled and in a powdered skin that brings the austere Japanese school of Butoh to mind. Subjected to visions of the beyond and prone to fits of dire prophecy, Carlson’s booming voice stands in stark contrast to the glib cocktail-set gossipers surrounding him. As Salomé, Irina Koval brings us the pouty sensuality of a teenager, impetuous and newly aware of the power she has over men. Her dance, naturally enough, is one of the highlights of the show is a reminder that there is often greater eroticism in what is implied than in what is laid bare (so to speak). Tony Strowd, as the doomed Young Syrian in love with Salomé, is truly affecting in his sincerity and longing. Michael Miyazaki and Kim Curtis are excellent foils, contrasting the seriousness of the central characters with their insouciance and joie de vivre.
…for the aesthetically adventurous it is one of the most rewarding stage experiences to be had this summer.
For much of the show the pace is stately and deliberate, which gives you a rare opportunity to savor the artistry of the performers and the play like good wine. This approach contrasts nicely with the hyper-frenetic tempos we have grown accustomed to at Synetic Theatre, where speed often overtakes sense and the eyes grow dizzy, incapable of appreciating a show’s finer points. But the action in Salomé definitely picks up with the entrance of Brian Hemmingsen and Rena Cherry Brown as Herod and his wife Herodias. These two lions grip the stage and engage in a delicious battle of one-upmanship, with Hemmingsen’s weak-kneed begging of Salomé undercut at every turn by Brown’s wicked one-liners (thanks to Wilde, one-liners are all she’s got; Brown certainly makes the most of them).
With a healthy run ahead – the show runs through mid-August—you should have ample opportunity to spend an evening with one of the stage’s greatest aesthete-playwrights, directed in the spirit of art-for-art’s-sake, and performed by a seasoned cast that takes Wilde’s artistic credo to heart.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Salome runs July 13 – August 18 at the Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the Atlas box office at 202-399-7993.