In fact, the world's most quotable esthete had a wide range of literary ambitions. For one thing, he was deeply attracted to the symbolist movement, which had sprung up in France in the second half of the 19th century. A shimmering, languorous decadence; troubling unresolved longings; intimations and suggestion from the nether world of dreams -- these phrases suggest something of the mood of symbolism. An Italian futurist, who violently rejected symbolism (as each successive "ism" violently rejected its predecessor) noted that the symbolists were "the last true worshippers of the moon."
Salome is suffused in moonlight -- that mysterious radiance connected with the tides, with the erotic and with madness. And, if this is starting to sound a bit heavy handed, let me add that a female police officer in the French Quarter recently told me in the most deadpan manner, "All cops know people go crazy when it's a full moon." Certainly, they get a bit unhinged in Wilde's imagined Judea.
Director Tristan Codrescu had the happy thought of producing this rarely seen classic at the UNO Downtown Theater, recently inaugurated in the Scottish Rite Temple building. This was a godsend for set designer John Grimsley, who ransacked the storerooms and came up with a phantasmagoric array of mystical, East-of-Suez loot: golden tripods with spherical torches, griffins, thrones, screens, mahogany tables.
The play takes place on a new stage that Grimsley built, and in the pit, where the audience previously sat. Actually, a few unlucky individuals are still left scattered there in Herod's palace, but the rest of us look down, like Romans in an arena, at the weird and sanguinary goings on.
Weird they are in every way: a weird story, couched in a weird kind of poetic prose. Wilde actually wrote Salome in French, and the text, with its insistent parallels and repetitions, has a vaguely biblical feeling -- as though a brilliant, world-weary, somewhat effete angel, sipping absinthe at a turn-of-the-century Parisian cafe, were dictating an updated version of holy scripture more to his liking.
In keeping with the stylized nature of the text, Codrescu offers a stylized staging that includes episodes of dance (tastefully choreographed by Audrey Elizabeth). The mood is heightened throughout by an equally tasteful instrumental ensemble, featuring Misha Penton on flute and vocals, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Helen Gillet on cello, Andrew McLean on percussion and Brian Prunka on oud.
How to keep this vaporous melange of the erotic, the neurotic and the exotic grounded, so that the audience can relate to it? This, of course, falls to the actors. Here, once again, Codrescu has made some happy choices.
The key figure is Salome herself. How to bring this enigma to life? What is she doing? And why? In the actual biblical passage (three whole paragraphs!), Salome is put up to her bizarre request for John the Baptist's head by her scheming mother. But Wilde shared the general symbolist infatuation with a "femme fatale" Salome -- although he adds a few new twists of his own, like her anger at the rejection of her newly aroused sexual desire by the unworldly holy man. Wilde also invented the "dance of the seven veils" (which he never describes) and the most grotesque kiss in the history of literature. All of these appallingly difficult acts and attitudes, Diana Shortes incarnates with an unfailing grace and plausibility. We do not understand this pagan princess, but we accept her, like a force of nature. In a similar way, we accept Brendan McMahon's John the Baptist : prophet or madman or mad prophet -- perhaps the distinctions cease to have meaning.
Well, I talked about grounding the play. And, while these roles are admirably done, their vitality is anything but earthbound. Our point of reference amid the perfumed whirlwind is none other than Herod: the fearful, self-indulgent, crafty, aging lecherous politician. Him, we can understand. And Henry Hoffman creates a Herod who is so human -- at times, almost comically human -- we even forget he is, in fact, speaking an almost glutinously rich torrent of language.
This central trio is ably supported by a poised and regal Lyla Hay Owen as Herodias, as well as Arthur Fisher and Skye Jordan among others.
This staging suffers from minor lapses, here and there. And the play itself has moments when it seems overripe. Nonetheless, Wilde's dream of Judea at the time of Christ is a haunting, indelible vision, a true myth. And this production takes you there.