On Stage: So You Think You Can Dance?

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Scena re-imagines Wilde’s ‘Salomé’ for the Atlas stage.

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Rena Cherry Brown, Brian Hemmingsen and Irina Koval (Photo by Mason Summers)

The Bible is filled with wonderful stories of incest, adultery, murder and just about every kind of sin anyone has ever considered committing. The most sensual and delicious of these tales is the story of Salomé and her dance of the seven veils before her lustful stepfather, Herod.

Salomé, dancing for the head of John the Baptist, has been an inspiration to artists, poets and musicians for centuries. It is the ever-contemporary erotic story of the older, married man lusting for the willowy, seductive virgin. It is the obsession that drives him to offer half his kingdom just to see her dance. The willful Salomé is erotically interested in the ultimate “bad boy,” the crazed imprisoned prophet John the Baptist. But because he summarily rejects her, she agrees to dance for her stepfather King Herod and in payment, demands the prophet’s head on a platter.

In the Scena production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé,” the lovely Irina Koval is perfect in the title role of the willful, petulant, posturing beauty, overly confident of the control she has over men, especially Herod, portrayed with lustful smarminess by Brian Hemmingsen. His Herod is so profoundly creepy that his interpretation may live on as the epitome of evil personified.

Two other standout performances are by Joseph Carlson as Iokanaan, or John the Baptist, and Rene Cherry Brown as Herodias, Salomé’s mother who was once married to Herod’s brother. Iokanaan hates her and shouts to all who can hear him that she is an adulterous abomination. Carlson is eerily effective as the mad Iokanaan, dressed in only tattered, burlap trousers, his chest all in white makeup and with stringy, unkempt hair and beard. His expression is frozen indifference to the life around him and his eyes actually seemed red with fanaticism. What doesn’t work is forcing the volume when he speaks in a gravelly, echoing way, designed to sound as though Iokanaan is talking from his cistern prison. The idea is to clearly emphasize his madness, but it is unnecessary in the intimate Atlas Theatre black box space.

What is also disconcerting about this production is trying to understand why the artistic director Robert McNamara chose to put most of his characters, especially his chorus, in white, Kabuki-style makeup, and why he has the chorus move about the stage in exaggerated slow motion, often laughing with a forced, artificial hilarity. In fact one of the chorus members so forces his hilarity that he seems to be channeling Steve Martin.

McNamara’s simple stage is effective with mostly chairs behind a table where the chorus, dressed as early 20th-century partygoers, looks over a balcony to offer empty, inane comments, echoing Wilde’s opinion of the upper classes. Salomé’s famed dance is basically in pantomime. She doesn’t remove any clothing, and in the final scene she is presented with an invisible head of Iokanaan, which she kisses. It was this act of necrophilia that horrified British censors.

Wilde was a great satirist with a gift of sardonic wit. He reveled in poking fun at the hypocrisy of the British upper classes, but while this production holds to Wilde’s words, it unnecessarily forces the staging. With Wilde, it is the words, the artistic genius of his satire and wit that almost makes any staging irrelevant. Salomé at the Atlas does provoke and stimulate, but it could have been so much more without straining to be different.

Scena Theatre‘s “Salomé” continues through August. 18 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, $20-$40, 202-399-7993, and online here.

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