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Unlike the majority of Oscar Wilde’s works, his tragedy Salomé (1891) is not a crowd-pleaser. Given the subject matter — a retelling of the Biblical story of the beheading of St. John the Baptist — it lacks Wilde’s signature wit. Due to the fact that Wilde originally wrote it in French, we mainly read subpar English translations, including a clunky interpretation by Wilde’s lover Alfred Douglas in 1894. What’s more, the one-act play does not allow for all that much dramatic development.
There’s a new version of Salomé in town, however, directed by James Rutherford and currently playing at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn. Through smart casting choices — especially Laura Butler Rivera, a Puerto Rican actress, as princess Salomé, and Feathers Wise, a trans woman, as the prophet Iokanaan (St. John the Baptist) — and a brand-new English translation he wrote, Rutherford enlivens the source material as best he can, turning an oft-misunderstood and rarely performed Victorian relic into a vital and relevant parable of criminalized otherness.
Rutherford directed a play focused on the power of the gaze, from princess Salomé’s longing for the prophet Iokanaan, who’s imprisoned in a well near her palace, to her stepfather Herod’s constant lusting for Salomé herself. All the other themes of the play, such as death and doom, are eclipsed by the emphasis on the beauty of both the prophet and, to a greater extent, the title character: “Don’t look at her” is a common refrain. Even at the tragedy’s apex, when Salomé finally obtains what she desires, it all boils down to the exterior. “Why didn’t you look at me, Iokanaan? If you had looked at me, you would have loved me,” Salomé says in her final monologue, holding the severed head of Iokanaan. After all, Wilde was, first and foremost, an aesthete.
In her interpretation of Salomé, Butler Rivera plays the tragic heroine both as a childish coquette and a femme fatale. Salomé is, in fact, starry-eyed in her worship of Iokanaan’s otherworldly physical beauty, but turns into a skillful seductress once Herod, the husband of her mother, Herodias, asks her to dance for him in return of anything she might ask, even half of the kingdom. Even her rendition of the famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” reflects this: it starts with precise footwork, then devolves into sensual, primitive body-shaking gestures as it nears its end.
Feathers Wise is an extremely interesting choice in the role of the prophet Iokanaan. She conveys the innate sense of queerness (as in otherness) typical of prophetic figures, who partook both of the human and of the divine space. A singer-songwriter with a statuesque stage presence, Wise has a voice that is both strong and ethereal, which befits Iokanaan’s prophetic utterances throughout the play. Had they been delivered by a less skilled performer, these lines would have sounded like the babblings of a generic madman instead of the incensed pronouncements of a prophet.
Herodias and Herod, the rulers of Iudea, played by Lisa Tharps and Marty Keiser, infuse the tragedy with some sitcom-esque bickering. Tharps makes Herodias sound like a shrewd, commandeering matriarch, a Lady Macbeth with fewer barbs. By contrast, Keiser portrays a Herod who is less lecherous than simply uncouth — what you would expect of a power-hungry princeling of an empire. When he asks his stepdaughter Salomé to dance for him, he sounds more like a patron at a tavern addressing a wench than an incestuous predator — a good acting choice, since it allows Salomé’s personality to emerge fully.
The set design is stripped down to essentials: all characters stand within a silver-colored circular platform — perhaps a nod to the moon, constantly admired by several characters — while Iokanaan is concealed behind a curtain made of thick layers of plastic. A moveable sofa and a couple of cushions recreate the environment where the tetrarch holds court with his guests. The characters, and their intense gazes towards one another, carry the action without the need for overwrought props.
By contrast, the costumes are quite elaborate: Salomé and Iokanaan wear white, ethereal garbs, while the rest of the court sports brightly colored outfits that, regardless of the characters’ provenance, are reminiscent of Middle Eastern and Far Eastern styles.
Thankfully, Rutherford’s translation did not strip the script of the Victorian artifices of the translations contemporaneous to the play. This was quite considerate of him, given that the florid descriptions, such as Iokanaan’s hair being likened to “clusters of black grapes” or “cedars of Lebanon,” are an essential component of the play, in which elaborate descriptions trump significant dramatic moments.
What Rutherford did was make the language tighter and more modern. Gone are archaisms such as “thy,” and “art” instead of “are”. One flowery line from Douglas’s translation — “Thy mouth is like a branch of coral that fishers have found in the twilight of the sea, the coral that they keep for the kings” — became “Your mouth is like a branch of coral found by fishermen in the twilight sea.” None of these are radical changes, but they make an overly contrived and manneristic play less of a self-contained period piece.
Most certainly, as a tragedy, Salomé does not have the depth of, say, any work by Sophocles, but James Rutherford’s careful translation and clever casting choices adapt the play for contemporary audiences, who will likely follow the smoothly flowing action and dialogue with ease and pleasure.
Salomé continues at Irondale (85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217) through October 27. More info here.