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Yes, Salome was originally written in French, and its mysterious allure may well lie in its exoticism. But Oscar Wilde’s 110-minute “miracle of impudence” becomes somewhat less miraculous (and altogether lacking in impudence) in the studiously stylized English-language production Le Néon Theatre has conjured for its first run at its new Rosslyn home.
Not that stylization is necessarily bad; it’s probably not possible to play this repetitiously, allegorically poetic script with anything approaching naturalism.
In fact, part of the problem is that there’s too much individuality, too much striving for believability, among the actors. One really isn’t looking for depth of characterization in a play as Greek-tragedy formal as Salome; it’s about sound and picture, about creating emotional responses and evoking a mood. You don’t necessarily want to be forced to wonder about Herod’s motivations or his childhood traumas; you want to see the angel of death in the shadowy places of the stage when Herod feels “the breath of the wind of its wings.”
Le Néon has the tactile bits pretty much down: murky lighting, Kabukiesque makeup, self-consciously balletic blocking, and gorgeous costuming by Justine Scherer create a rich odor of the Oriental. Would that the performances were as structured and elegant as the cascading green and gold geometrics of the Klimt-inspired headcloths the Jewish scholars wear.
Instead, they’re as intrusive in their unevenness as the sound design, which employs odd bits of Léo Delibes’ Lakmé but doesn’t integrate them very well. Directors Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy allow Richard Pelzman to whipsaw between overripe horror and near-vaudevillian buffoonery as Herod Antipas, the spineless Judean ruler with the unseemly fascination for his stepdaughter’s nubile form. Deborah Hazlett is in some ways too shrewish as Herodias, the wife for whom Herod murdered his brother, and John Benoit’s Iokanaan is a singularly hammy prophet, raving tiresomely about Herodias’ incestuous indiscretions from his dank prison.
(Note to file: Iokanaan, who delivers a goodly chunk of his lines from offstage, must generally be played by an actor who can believably bring stage action to a halt with splendid vocalism alone. This man is John the Baptist, the herald of Christ, the voice of God; there’s a reason Herod’s scared peeless of him. Benoit’s raspy haunted-house howling isn’t, one suspects, what Wilde had in mind. And let’s not even talk about the wig, whose rattiness wouldn’t be so distracting if the infatuated Salome didn’t have to deliver a long set of paeans to Iokanaan’s beautiful hair. It’s “like the clusters of black grapes that hang from the vine-trees of Edom,” she tells us, but there’s not a ringlet in sight here.)
Neagoy, as Salome, alternates between two voices, one little-girl innocent and, after Iokanaan spurns her advances, one Linda Blair-possessed. Neither is particularly subtle. The Judean princess makes her first entrance with an exquisitely perfumed speech about the revelers at the debauched banquet she has just left: “Within there are Jews from Jerusalem who are tearing each other in pieces over their foolish ceremonies, and barbarians who drink and drink and spill their wine on the pavement, and Greeks from Smyrna with painted eyes and painted cheeks, and frizzed hair curled in columns, and Egyptians silent and subtle, with long nails of jade and russet cloaks, and Romans brutal and coarse…” Such lavish adjectives; on Neagoy’s lips they sound like a laundry list. (Another great speech, in which Herod tries to bribe the bloodthirsty Salome with “a collar of pearls…like unto moons chained with rays of silver,” among other great treasures, goes similarly begging; it’s been harshly edited, too.)
As for the Dance of the Seven Veils, that performance with which Salome wins the right to ask for Iokanaan’s head, let’s just say that it’s a test of the audience’s powers of concentration even at its most fluid. And Neagoy’s style seemshow to put this?coagulated.
What this production gets right, it gets right in its silences and in its moodier corners, where it’s true to its roots in Greek drama. Choreographed fearfulness from the chorus, the unearthly stillness that falls when an unwittingly prophetic Herod describes Salome’s feet in language identical to that his dead guard-captain used, the glacial minuet in which Herodias presents the executioner with the ring that gives him the authority to take a lifein these places does this monumental story take on the weight and horrible lyricism it deserves.CP