Oscar Wilde’s Salome

By Philip Pearce

More than a century later, Oscar Wilde, witty and satirical, still sparkles, as Western Stage proved in last year’s delightful Importance of Being Earnest. Even Oscar Wilde melodramatic, as in The Picture of Dorian Grey, still draws readers into a balance of heavy drama and sharp epigrams. But Oscar Wilde poetic and Biblical, as in Paper Wing’s current Salome, can be pretty heavy going.

It’s a slow-paced script, with lines of verse composed on the principle that anything worth saying is worth saying three times and when you hit on a good simile it’s even better if you hit it several more times later in the play. Yet SALOMEunderneath all the fancy verbiage there’s quite an exciting story of thwarted lust and bloody vengeance.

The question is, how do you present all that Edwardian verse and Biblical costuming to a twenty-first century audience? At Paper Wing, director Jourdain Barton has opted for a Rocky Horror eccentricity, which sends up big swatches of the action and rushes the poetry, and she’s got a point.

Anyone attending a performance these days probably knows the basic story. Judean Princess Salome, ogled by her stepfather King Herod, demands and gains the head of the prophet John the Baptist on a platter in exchange for dancing for the besotted monarch. Wilde seems to be dead serious about this play, so doing it camp and
crazy encounters a few snags. For one thing, the dialogue lacks enough jokes and that means some odd dramatic choices to keep up the camp. The Nazarene who describes the miracles of Jesus, for instance, appears in the person of Beverly Van Pelt as the drunkenest of many well-oiled guests at Herod’s palace. It’s only when Salome, Herodias and Herod take over that the play really starts moving forward. As the young princess, Taylor Noel Young is appropriately lovely to look at and her dance of the seven veils is an exciting exercise in sex and violence. Jourdain Barton gets some laughs playing her mother Herodias as a ditsy but indignant socialite. As Herod, a Judean puppet ruler with moral qualms, Patrick Golden is the most complex and sympathetic as well as the most long winded character in the play. His series of suggestions for diverting Salome from the decapitation of the prophet seemed to go on for hours. In an effort to counteract the tendency of much of the rest of the cast to operate at full throttle and maximum volume, Golden offers some nice shading and emotional variety, but he’s got a heavy load of words, words, words.

The trouble with this production isn’t its viewing of Herod’s family and court as goofy and overblown. Its trouble is a badly skewed picture of John the Baptist. Wilde’s text and the Gospels make it clear this is a man with such relentless and unyielding moral indignation that he is the terror of unrighteous souls like Queen Herodias. Wilde adds the interesting idea that John’s spare muscular body and skimpy camelhair tunic also make him much the most physically attractive male on the premises, a fact Salome exploits from the moment he walks in with exploding bombs of righteous wrath. He’s
forbidden fruit, so she wants to seduce him, while Herodias wants to silence
him at any cost and Herod is scared he may really have a direct line to God.

But Barton and actor Jesse Juarez III distort the picture by presenting John the Baptist as a pop-eyed scaredy-cat. He cringes on all fours when confronted by Salome, he winces every time he hears a loud noise, he seems frightened of his own shadow. That a family as focused and self-assured as the three Herods would fear, let alone fall in
love with such a wimp is too unbelievable even for a production as fancy free and far out as this one.

Salome continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 until the end of August.