Saturday, April 12, 2014

Salome (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Salome has always had something of a strange reputation. Arguably Oscar Wilde's most infamous play, it so outraged Victorian sensibilities the work was banned in the UK until 1905. The English of the era missed the point of the work quite spectacularly. Despite (or in truth because) the work deals with insanity, obsession, decadence and perversion, it remains as moralistic as the rest of Wilde's serious works--that is to say, profoundly. He treated the ideas of virtue and evil very seriously indeed. So much so he saw saints and sinners first and foremost as human beings. And although he demonstrates a definite moral point of view, Wilde never ever tells you what to think.

Now the Archway Theatre downtown has its own production. For the second time since beginning this blog, I'm reviewing the mounting of this precise work.

The experience proved a very mixed bag, not least because the play is not only in verse but in a style of verse far more French in style than English. Wilde wrote it in French, and translation presents a problem. A very tricky one, because it builds on a cadence natural to a different language from the one these actors use. So the problems I have with the show are technical. But a little pervasive.

First, all the leads seem quite talented. The major roles number four: Salome (Deneen Melody), her mother Herodias (Jennifer Hawkins), her stepfather Herod (Elias McCabe) and the imprisoned Hebrew prophet Jokanaan (Keith Wyffels). I say this in spite of what seems to me real trouble they (and everyone else in the cast) had with the heightened language. I could go on about the technicalities of that, but suffice to say poetry remains difficult to speak without declaiming or over-doing it. Yet for all that, the characters did speak to one another, did genuinely try to talk and react to each others' words. Frankly, I've seen lots of casts do far less well. Far less. Towards this let me single out Wyffels and Hawkins as going far beyond the cliches of their roles. This Jokanaan didn't just shout to the sky but said things to people, actually had thought and intention behind his words. Likewise he genuinely reacted to Salome. Too often actors in this part ignore her utterly, or at best treat her as a prop. Not so this time! Likewise this Herodias seems a richer, more rounded character than the whining harridan we usually get. The fact she nearly cries as her daughter dances, yet remains rigidly dignified, impressed me deeply. So too did some hints between herself and Herod that this couple were (and perhaps still are) passionate about one another. At least she still is. Sometimes.

Melody likewise does a fine job of portraying a very troubled young woman, someone who frankly in another era with very different circumstances might have been bulemic. Or a cutter. Instead her Salome is the ultimate tease, wielding the tiny power she has with fierce, ruthless whimsy. Someone who ultimately has nothing, and craves she knows not what. That tension destroys her none-too-firm grasp on sanity by the end. That she carries that potential with her from the time she enters helps make her compelling.

The costumes are lovely. The setting and set interesting, conveying a very specific sense of place. Kudos!

As far as the direction goes, I personally found the blocking eschewed tension in favor of being busy. Visually the effect was often interesting, but rarely served the story. Yet it never committed that cardinal sin of even once making me bored. Even at its least-good, the production and cast kept my attention.

But I must return to something that bears repeating. Something of a rant, really. Naturalistic acting is a style, despite the name. It remains the overwhelmingly common one used in films and television, and most contemporary theatre. Yet it doesn't really work for some kinds of material, like Salome. Far too often American actors (the kind with which I am most familiar) stumble and grope their way when confronted with this very different style of material. The leads in general found their way in this production. Not surprisingly, they shone most at moments divorced from Wilde's heightened language. Everybody for example, listened extremely well to what was going on. NO SMALL THING! When having to respond to something physical, like blood on the floor for example, the actors did very well. But many clearly found genuine trouble with the language and a few fell into the traps too many actors do. One person emoted their lines, rather than feeling while they spoke. Another settled for an attitude rather than making much of a character. Still another pretended they weren't speaking heightened language at all! Which sounded and felt 'off.'

For all that, let me recommend the show. The leads, upon whom the play depends, bring those characters to life. The story is told, its momentum and emotional power genuinely growing to the play's climax. The cast interact with one another for every moment of performance. And we are sucked into the show, the situation, the events as they unfold. In this the cast and crew and all involved succeed--and we the audience reap the benefit.

Salome Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm through May 11 (no performance April 20), 2014 at the Archway Theatre, 305 South Hewitt Street, Los Angeles CA 90013. Tix are $18 and can be purchased here.

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