Woman as daemon: 1. “Salome”

In a small space before a pair of brick arches, the Archway Theatre re-creates the palace of Herod Antipas, in the time of Jesus.  Or perhaps I should say they re-create the palace’s balcony as an Irish poet and playwright imagined it, late in Queen Victoria’s reign.

But that’s not quite right, either.  The story we saw Friday probably couldn’t have happened 2,000 years ago.  And the Queen’s censor permitted no public staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome at all  in 1892 London.  (It opened in Paris, a few years later.)

Deneen Melody

Salome is only a one-act, but it’s a complex, difficult play.  Even a dangerous one.

It’s difficult for several reasons.  It leaps in media res, with little exposition, trusting us to know the Biblical tale; the two main characters shift attitudes and emotions mercurially; the style slips between masque and realistic drama, and the language is both poetic and stunningly frank.  These are not easy assignments for a troupe to take on.

Salome is dangerous because … well, the Victorian censor didn’t fear  the play’s image of John the Baptist, as he claimed, but its sexuality.  Herod lusts after his stepdaughter openly and often.  She in turn plies her seductive skills on the Syrian captain Narraboth, on the imprisoned prophet (whom Wilde calls Jokanaan) , and finally — in her famous dance — on her lascivious parent.

Salome is also bloody.   The prophet’s severed head spends the last several minutes onstage, as Salome enjoys a revenge even more brutal and shocking than anything recounted by the gospel writers (or the Roman historian Josephus).

Most of all, though, Salome is subversive.  Wilde brings vividly to center stage the power struggle between Herod  and Salome that’s latent in the gospels (they focus instead on Christ’s deputy vs. Caesar’s).  Wilde sets forth an iconic battle of child against parent, victim against abuser, subject against the crown — in sum, woman against the patriarchy.

Directed by Steven Sabel, the Archway players deliver a briskly paced performance, handling the language with nearly uniform clarity as they gather outside Herod’s feast hall to admire the moon.  It’s almost a tableau vivant, given the small space and Wilde’s lack  of interest in having his characters move (a cause of friction between him and the director of his prior play, Lady Windermere’s Fan).

In bursts Salome (Deneen Melody on  opening night) , fleeing her stepfather’s attentions, bristling with unsettled emotion.  The half-clad princess hits this small, static world like a tornado, unbalancing everyone.  She resolves to meet the prophet although — or perhaps because — Herod has forbidden it, using her sexual and royal powers to make the smitten Narraboth (Avi Nash) free him.

She then engages Jokanaan (Keith Wyffels) in an erotic love-hate dance, drawn to him, fiercely rebuffed, recoiling, then returning.  Each time, she poetically proclaims her infatuation (“thy body,” “thy hair,”   “thine eyes,” “thy mouth”) then retreats, reviling what she had praised.  Made frantic by this escalating madness, Narraboth slays himself — a soldier (Wali Habib) hides the body and the prophet flees back to his cell.

Enter Herod (Elias McCabe) and his queen (Jennifer Hawkins).  He’s drunk and prowling for Salome, she’s trying to hold him back and placate their guests.   He keeps wheedling his daughter to dance; Salome, shamed and disgusted, keeps refusing.  Finally, he offers to pay her anything at all; she seizes the opportunity, making him vow.

With the Dance of the Seven Veils, Salome’s eroticism reaches its peak, and she decisively wrests the power from her king/father.  Refusing all his counter-offers, she insists on her  chosen payment: the prophet’s head.  But her triumph is tragic and  brief.   Lifting her grisly trophy, she laments her life as an unseen, unloved girl, made into an object of political and sexual desire.  Kissing the lips that spat at her, she descends into a mad, explicitly sexual pas de deux with what remains of the one man she tried to love.  Herod, retrieving the reins, orders her execution: the sword falls as the play ends.

In the demanding title role, Melody draws on her experience as a ballerina and a horror film actress to deliver a bravura performance.  Her Salome wins our empathy even as she shocks and appalls us, shattering our comfort and our hearts.  She soars and drops through the princess’ manic changes, tirelessly shifting shape both physically and vocally.   Hers is a definitive Salome.

McCabe, as her main antagonist, gives us a Herod of commanding presence, almost too drunk to marshal the shrewd intelligence of a client king skilled at navigating the uncertain seas of Roman rule.  His greedy lust for his stepdaughter, and the self-indulgence and  self-deception that enable it, are chillingly embodied.

Wyffels, as the princess’ secondary antagonist, must deliver most of his lines offstage (most of them written not by Wilde but by the King James translators).  Onstage, he shows us a man of spiritual and physical power, baffled by the onslaught of Salome’s emotional need and sexual manipulation.

Also worthy of note are Hawkins’ ability to chide and even rage at her husband while still showing us their strong emotional bond; the clarity and easy authority of the Roman envoy (Luke McMahon); and the dry, world-weary wit (a homage to Wilde himself) with which Daniel Krause endows the envoy from Cappadocia.

Sabel and his production team make good use of the theatre’s small, shallow space, creating a readily believable setting and working bravely against Wilde’s tendency to write a “stand and deliver” play.
Wilde’s poetry is spoken with understanding, though his frequent use of repetition does invite more variety of delivery — and accumulated meaning — than it at times receives.  Sabel also at times allows a modern sense of physical boundaries to overwhelm the text, as when Salome tempts Narraboth by promising a smile and a flower tomorrow, while she is already fondling him.

Today, more than a century after it appeared, Salome remains a shocking, powerful play.   Back in 1892, Wilde was hugely famous as a salon wit, and was growing rich as a writer of hit drawing-room comedies.  What drew him to this lurid tale of lust and violence?

Did he intend to publish — one year into their disastrous affair — a parable of how the young nobleman Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas was ruthlessly degrading Wilde and goading his own father into outing them?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Did he mean to suggest symbolically that his own closeted desire was fatally threatening his hard-won image as a witty intellectual prophet who exposed Victorian society’s prim hypocrisy? Perhaps, perhaps not.

What’s certain is that less than four years after writing Salome, Wilde was in prison for sodomy, his career destroyed, his wife and family alienated.  What’s also certain is that the text he created still offers a shattering indictment of the sexual and political exploitation that lies uneasily beneath the seeming order of patriarchy — Biblical, British imperial, or American modern.  Congratulations to Archway Theatre for presenting it to us.

Salome, by Oscar Wilde.  Produced and directed by Stephen Sabel, at the Archway Theatre.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays (except April 20) at 2 PM, through May 11.

Disclaimer:  I have acted with Ms. Melody, and directed her recently in Carmilla at ZJU Theatre.