Known mostly from Richard Strauss’ operatic adaptation, the version most audiences assume to be definitive, Salome is rarely staged as a straight play. The operatic Salome’s long, orgasmic final aria is hard to match without the thunderously brilliant Strauss music. Only a skilled actress could express Salome’s sexual frustration without that score buoying her into heights of ardor.
Produced by the resourceful, smart M-34 Productions and FringeNYC, Salome, the play, currently at the Irondale theater space in culturally burgeoning Fort Greene uses a new translation by James Rutherford. While keeping the Biblical setting, this version gives the play a smoother, less archaic feel.
Irondale occupies a large space on the second floor of a church. Set designer Oona Curley has taken advantage of its generous height and width by arranging the audience in a semicircle around a large metallic disc set into the stage, forming a central playing area. Across the back of the stage, from one end of the space to the other, is a curtain made of white, filmy, translucent material that immediately brings to mind the famous “seven veils” that figure into the explosive ending of the play.
Kate McGee’s dramatic lighting and Wladimiro A. Wayno R.’s surreal projections of Salome and Iokanaan’s face and body parts vary from striking to dreamy while Lara de Bruijn’s elaborate Biblical costumes would be at home at the Metropolitan Opera House. De Bruijn, in particular, catches the total commitment to the enjoyment of the senses that consumes this cast of diverse historical figures, an enjoyment that must build until it explodes into bloodlust and violence.
The play begins with an eerie moonlit conversation amongst the ill-fated Young Syrian (Alexander Reed, believably boyish) who has a puppy-dog crush on Salome; his confidante, the Page of Herodias (Jing Xu, her anxiety palpable); a Cappadocian (Jonathan Harris who makes exposition interesting); a Nubian (Justin Reinsilber making this exotic character believable) who boasts of blood-thirsty human sacrifices in his homeland; and two hunky Soldiers (Patrick Cann and Ross Cowan who combine muscles with grace).
Their tittle-tattle brings to life a colorful portrait of the royal family: Herod, his second wife, Herodias and his stepchild, Salome. Their lives of depravity and corruption and the suspicious influence of an assemblage of Jews (one God?!) are central topics.
Right on cue Salome (Laura Butler Rivera) appears. As played by Butler Rivera she is street smart, smart-mouthed but frightfully naïve. Despite the wicked milieu in which she exists, she is sexually innocent, yet spoiled. She’s a brat who persuades the guards to let her see Iokanaan whose deprecations turn her on in ways she cannot understand.
Iokanaan is played by transgender actress Feathers Wise, who comes across as a wily, yet otherworldly figure, like something out of a Fellini film.
Herod (Marty Keiser), Herodias (Lisa Tharps, snappy, bitchy and terrific) and their posse of hangers-on enter adding color and volume to the stage. Herod and Herodias constantly bicker while the Jews constantly complain and Salome uses her wiles and physical attributes to seduce her stepfather into promising her whatever she wishes.
She performs the famous Dance of the Seven Veils choreographed by Jess Goldschmidt. Although Butler Rivera gives her all to the angular, thrashing movements given her by Goldschmidt, the result is more modern dance recital than seduction.
Wilde cleverly contrasts Herod’s incestuous sexual thrashings with Salome’s psychologically painful desires. Marty Keiser turns Herod into a clownish dirty old man whose final anger at Salome exposes his true vile nature.
This M-34 production, under Rutherford’s direction, doesn’t rise to stratospheric heights. Quite the opposite: Rutherford’s direction and writing turns Salome into a fascinating domestic comedy/drama, an interesting interpretation, even a witty interpretation, but one that avoids piercing the audience’s minds. He keeps the actors watchable with an in-your-face directing style. Earnest and energetic as it is, he never squeezes fresh revelations from the text.
The production is posh by off-Broadway standards and offers a rare opportunity to see a minor gem and judge its viability.
Salome (through October 27, 2018)
M-34 Productions and FringeNYC
Irondale, 85 South Oxford Street, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-488-9233 or visit http://www.M-34.org
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission