If the Women’s Voices Theater Festival has demonstrated anything thus far, at least judging by the offerings at D.C.’s largest theaters, it’s that hiring a lady playwright does not guarantee staging a compelling, female-centric story.
For Woolly Mammoth, Sheila Callaghan contributed a sophomoric farce about an entitled trust fund millennial and three fucked-up women in his life (Women Laughing Alone with Salad). At Signature, lyricist Julia Jordan teamed with composer Adam Gwon to turn an extant play into a musical about a guy trying to win a baking contest (Cake Off). And at Arena Stage, local playwright Karen Zacarías is sending up the puffy-gowned, goopy-mascara world of telenova mistresses in her new comedy, Destiny of Desire.
There’s nothing wrong with all this entertaining fare, but it seems much more in the spirit of this festival for theaters to stage plays that have something to say about the female experience. Be grateful then, that the Shakespeare Theatre, a venue devoted to the male-dominated cannon, is premiering playwright and director Yaël Farber’s Salomé as adapted from the scriptures, historical sources, and Oscar Wilde’s play.
Farber, a South African director whose father is of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, has built an international career around recontextualizing the classics. Her work was last seen here two years ago when Shakespeare hosted her touring production of August Strindberg’s Mies Julie, set in post-Apartheid South Africa. For Salomé, Farber assembled an international cast, including many actors of Middle Eastern descent.
In the New Testament gospels, the story about the girl who dances before Herod—and so pleases the ruler of Judea that he offers Salomé anything she wishes—gets just 15 verses. She’s named not in the scriptures but by the historian Josephus; the seven veils were Wilde’s idea, and made infamous in Richard Strauss’ opera.
Neither ancient source provides a reason for her request (the head of John the Baptist on a platter), but according to scriptures, the idea came from Salomé’s mother. Contemporary readers looking at these texts—which we must remember have been patched together and translated by 20 centuries’ worth of men—are left to assume Salomé was a slut and her mother, Herod’s wife, was a vindictive bitch. That’s not the case in Farber’s play, which positions the story in a broader historical context. The resulting hypnotic 90-minute theater piece should now appeal to anyone with an interest in early Christianity and Hebrew history, and all who love seeing a fascinating story unfold onstage in unexpected ways.
The set at the Lansburgh Theatre is deceptively bare. The back of the theater is painted black, with exposed pipework and masonry. When the cast processes in, it’s with great solemnity. Movement and music are crucial to the show’s ethos; two singers vocalize nearly the entire time, chanting over an effective drone. Salomé herself is depicted by two actors: Nadine Malouf as Herod’s gamine stepdaughter and Olwen Fouéré as a reflective older woman, who delivers much of the narration.
As the cast reenacts scenes from scripture, sand pours from the ceiling, veils fall from the catwalks, and trap doors open to reveal the River Jordan. (Tony winner Donald Holder did the stunning lighting; Susan Hilferty is credited with the scenic and costume design.) By show’s end, audiences are entirely sucked in, as if huddling beneath a tent to escape a desert sandstorm.
The world of first-century Hebrews is, evidently, a perilous one. Their inhospitable holy land is occupied by tax-and-starve Romans, and for women, the situation is far worse. So what if Salomé—Salomé the seductress—may have been dancing for much more than a Nazarite head? In Farber’s retelling, her striptease starts a revolution, one that required discarding oppressors and finding salvation. So convincing is the theatermaking in Salomé, you may leave converting into thinking that while well behaved women rarely make history, it takes a revisionist woman playwright and director to set history straight.
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