Pleasing Herod

Oscar Wilde’s Salomé is a fascinating play, one that breathes life into the woman who is only called “the daughter of Herodias” by the authors of Mark and Matthew.  In the New Testament, this daughter (Laura Butler Rivera) is just following her mother’s orders when she asks for the beheading of John the Baptist.  In Wilde’s play, her power is more complicated: she is a virgin, an object of her uncle’s lust, a savvy manipulator of that lust, and, after seeing John the Baptist—here called Iokanaan (Feathers Wise)—lustful herself.  When they meet, she wants a kiss.  He denies her request, so she demands his head.  This is the story of a spurned lover.

In reviving Salomé, director James Rutherford and M-34, a company dedicated to “rigorous, critical, and curious” productions, have focused on the queer overtones of the text.  Wise, a trans woman, plays Iokanaan as both ethereal and androgynous, introducing more ambiguity into his relationship with Salomé.  Rutherford has also updated Wilde’s translation from French (credited to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas), getting rid of its Biblical thous and wouldsts.  On paper, everything checks out.

But in performance, this Salomé is dull: the staging is static, and the actors mostly stand in an inward-facing circle, exaggerating their behavior but falling short of the sheer mania required.  Sometimes you can overact but not enough.  And while the centerpiece of the play, Salomé’s dance, does provide us with a riveting and athletic performance from Rivera, it is ruined by corny projections of photographs onto her veils.

Salomé is an underproduced play and deserves a thoughtful revival, one that in many ways could resemble M-34’s.  But it would need a stronger directorial voice, one capable of bringing dynamism and bold but clear choices to the show.  Here, dramatic tedium overshadows even the best of ideas.

Salomé runs through October 27th at the Irondale Center.  85 S. Oxford Street  Brooklyn, NY.  1 hour 30 minutes.  No intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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