We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The swirl of color and noise and motion that is the Synetic Theater’s Salomé seems, after a day’s time to consider it, a lot like its heroine: more than a trifle outré, not a little unbalanced, but pretty damn intoxicating anyway.
The darkly glorious excesses of Oscar Wilde’s languagein his beloved Bosie’s translation, the play fairly echoes with moon-drunk poetryare a natural starting point for Synetic, a company built on the idea of meeting vivid writing with an equally vivid vocabulary of stage images. In the vision of Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, the husband-and-wife director-choreographer team responsible for much of this company’s most striking work, the court of the Judean tetrarch isn’t the usual den of coarse gluttony and unrestrained lust. Populated with languid, beautiful people, sleepy with the opiate of its own glamour, it is instead a place of lavish sensuality, of almost formalized carnality, and above all of stylea place where narcissism and vanity and greed have tangled together until the desiring of a thing and the annihilating possession of it are all but indistinguishable. What’s most striking is that the Tsikurishviliswith able assistance from set and costume designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishviliestablish all of this before their players speak a single word.
The evening starts, characteristically for this company, with a soundthe echoing drip, drip of water in the old cistern inside which is imprisoned the prophet Jokanaan. (We know him better, we Sunday-school survivors, as John the Baptist.) Soon enough, that metronomic sound is subsumed in other noisesIrakli Kavsadze hasn’t created a sound design so much as a score for this Salomé, punctuating and intensifying lyrical passages and horrific word-images alike with a swell of violins here, a surge of massed voices there, the tolling of bells, even the shivery whine of a glass harmonicaand a lithe, titian-haired creature in a black domino has appeared among the scarlet lanyards that reach downward, taut with possibility, from the darkness that shrouds the rafters. From the ends of one cord, then another, Irina Tsikurishvili’s Salomé plucks a succession of mirrors, losing herself gradually in their depths as a dark-robed doppelgänger emerges from the surrounding blackness to glide with her through a fraught, silent dance of obsession.
And then, quickly, come the impossibly attired figures of Herod’s court: soldiers in black-tipped robes of scarlet, squabbling Sadducees and Nazarenes in tones of yellow and cream, a beautiful young page in a gossamer skirt of gold-shot peach, naked otherwise save for a froth of black lace around his neck. And Herodoh, consider Herod: Greg Marzullo’s angular, elegant tetrarch passes among the others in cloth of gold and salmon pinks, a long fur girdle and electric satin opera gloves and an ecdysiast’s carmine tasselsand is somehow magnetically handsome anyway. With the others, he weaves through a dance that becomes a revel that becomes a stylized orgy, complete with choreographic gestures that broadly suggest everything from bondage games to autoerotic asphyxiation. The palpable sexual tension of the sequence is diffused only by the accompanying musica dissonance-heavy rethink of Ravel’s Bolero, one of Kavsadze’s few clichéd contributions.
Then, only then, does Wilde’s language begin its own dance, marking out its graceful figures of obsession and mortality. A young Syrian soldier, struck with love for the unattainable Princess Salomé, speaks longingly of white doves and roses, shadows and silvered mirrors; he is answered by the queen’s page, who himself loves the Syrian, and who sees only coldness and death in the pallor of the moon. Their languagegently, deftly handled by John Milosich and Matthew Connerwill find darker echoes later, when Salomé’s mad desire for the imprisoned prophet frames itself in passages about the black lakes of his eyes, the cold ivory of his flesh, the pomegranate red of the lips she swears to kiss.
Kiss them she eventually does, of courseafter she’s had him hauled out of his dank prison (a moment Tsikurishvili realizes with an image as audacious as anything the company has done before), after she’s enflamed Herod’s lust for her with that iconic dance (framed here as a fantasy sequence in which Marzullo’s desire-maddened king joins her as she writhes), and after she’s claimed Jokanaan’s head as her promised reward. Evocatively, the Tsikurishvilis’ Salomé delivers that kiss through one of the veils she’s only just sheddraped over the terrible mass of the prophet’s severed head, it’s at once a symbol of her awful triumph and a practical measure that trumps the audience’s need to judge how well the prop-master has rendered the actor’s likeness. But it’s more than that: A horror half seen is a horror more vividly imagined, as these performers surely know, and the blurring of this kiss renders it all the more fearful.
When it’s that thoughtful, this Salomé is as seductive and dangerous as a serpent; here and there, however, Tsikurishvili lets the production’s constant undertone of dark irony shade into something like farceand its spell evaporates almost entirely when he does. A metal column in the center of the stage becomes the unfortunate focus of attention both in that Eyes Wide Shut-ish orgy at the top of the show and again in Salomé’s dance; debauched she may be, but she’s not a pole-dancer; nor do images of a frolic around the maypole conflate easily with scenes of sexual abandon. Catherine Gasta’s crimson-taloned Herodias meets the desperate false bonhomie of Marzullo’s increasingly frantic Herod with a stylized, birdlike snappishness that’s only occasionally as funny as it’s presumably meant to be. Likewise Nathan Weinberger’s flippant Second Soldier; he’s a welcome relief in some places, a jarring intrusion in others. And if Jonathan Leveck’s Jokanaan never tries to make you laugh, neither does he ever quite reduce you to awe; Leveck’s line readings sound uncomfortably strident, with none of the ring and resonance you want in the voice of a prophet.
But there’s no denying the production’s aggregate power, or escaping its sweeplike a lover whose wildness is more captivating than you know is wise, this Salomé is just too outrageously stimulating to resist.
If you start your weekend with the one-act by the Irishman about the not-quite-right young woman, there’s no reason not to wind it up with the one-act by the other Irishman about the not-quite-right young man. Do, by all means: Conor McPherson’s The Good Thief assembles, in its spare hour, a gently devastating portrait of a man awakening to the knowledge of his own eviland grieves, ever so quietly, along with a character who’s learning how to do the same. It’s honest, and sad, and lovely.
The Scena Theatre production may not be quite the play’s equal, but its tone at least is right. Robert McNamara directs with restraint and respect for the script’s considerable momentum but never allows a sense of hurryand in a story that operates on one level as a shoot-’em-up suspenser, that’s probably not easy.
If his accent doesn’t have quite the right lilt, Eric Lucas does bring an apt shambling physicality to the play’s sole parta not-so-bright Dublin thug who earns his drink as a low-level enforcer for a local gangster. He’s a mere rougher-up, our nameless toughmurder isn’t his linebut when a strong-arm assignment goes wrong, he finds himself running from associates whose portfolios aren’t so limited. What transpires when he stops running, the who and what and how of the price he inevitably has to pay, is if anything worse than a quick and messy death might have been. The only thing that makes the story bearable is the wry lyricism of McPherson’s language, the way it approaches and subdues its terrible events with simple words quietly spoken.
For all the grace McPherson has built into his play, The Good Thief’s gentle bruiser is still a dangerous man, and any production that convinces an audience to mourn his story can count itself a success. Count this one so; it’s honest, and lovely, and sad. CP