It is often noted that our age values novelty to at least the occasional exclusion of truly worthy aesthetics. Unhappily, this was the case in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé,” directed by Yigit P. Sezener ’17, which ran in the Cabot House Theater from March 6 to 8. “Salomé” is a monument of late Victorian fin-de-siècle literature, presenting the biblical story of a dancing girl who uses her allure to persuade her stepfather, King Herod, to execute the prophet John the Baptist. Before the astonished eyes of the audience, the integrity of the text was mashed to an ignominious death in Sezener’s bizarre staging, featuring a set that looks like a 19th-century imperialist conception of a Chinese court, a Salomé clad in Lolita fashion, and overacted line-delivery that would be expected in an amateur production of “Hamlet.” What was displayed in this production was not art. It was exploitation.
The viewers were greeted at the theater by pulsing house music and the more or less unexpected spectacle of three students who have dressed as BDSM strippers, dancing onstage in front of the projected visual component of what appeared to be a J-pop music video. While this ethos is perhaps sympathetic to Wilde’s Decadent aesthetic—indeed, some might argue that the current era is ripe for a revival of Decadence and symbolism—this production’s execution was unsound. Rather than build the atmospheric darkness appropriate to Wilde’s text and the gruesome biblical event that it describes, the set’s chains, blow-up dolls, dildos, duct tape, and speedos produce a comical effect somewhere between a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” convention and a stereotyped crime-show sex-dungeon. Over this is a strange Orientalist veneer of Chinese lanterns, fans, and brocades crudely painted over with calligraphic characters. The ultimate end of this set is unclear; its proximate end seems to be the provision of a culturally shallow context appropriate to a Loli Salomé, played by Christine Pak ’17. The clutter of the stage lacked clear focus,and as a result, the eye wanders from the main action at any given point to the various pieces of sexual paraphernalia littering the set or to secondary characters who are inexplicably left on the stage during periods of important dramatic tension.
Good acting could have saved this production and even worked in conjunction with the ludicrous set to produce dark thematic dissonances. Unfortunately, the quality of acting presented only enhances the farcical nature of the production. It was unclear whether or not Sezener intended for there to be unrestrained laughter and tittering among the audience after the delivery of every single line in the final third of the play; whatever his intentions, this was the result. Pak’s Salomé manages to deliver a competent if unsubtle performance. The same cannot be said for the Herod played by Darius J. Altman ’17, whose performance is so purely buffoonish that the pathos of the unlucky king is lost in the cartoonish delivery of even the tragic lines in the text. His delivery is monotone—namely, shrieking—and his efforts to engage the audience directly were so clumsy that it was unclear if they were Sezener’s intention or an overenthusiastic improvisation. Nick T.J. Wood ’17 put in a good effort as Narraboth and gave the play the darkness it could use; sadly, his character is killed within ten minutes after the curtain rising. Maia R. Silber ’17, an active Crimson editor, played Herodias with a mechanical, ironical delivery that was very clearly deliberate and studied; since the reasoning for this directorial decision was obscure, the fact that her lines were invariably met with laughter cannot be reasonably lain at her feet.
The innovations on the text of Wilde’s “Salomé” were, like much else in this production, of unclear purpose. The most spectacular was the introduction of Judith (Elizabeth B.H. O’Donnell ’17), an angel who offers Herod salvation. This confusing insertion is naturally ridiculous, concluding with the emphatic statement “Fire and motherfucking brimstone!” While this utterance succeeded in drawing laughter from the audience, it was mysterious as to how it related to anything else that happens in the play—although, since the main thematic goals of this whole staging were so hopelessly muddled, it did not make much difference.
While it is difficult to enumerate the ills of this “Salomé,” its good qualities are easily named and explained. The single clearly interesting and effective decision in this production was the costuming of John the Baptist, played by Tom O. Marshall ’17. Clad in nothing but leopard-print briefs, a red wig, and a high black mourning hat with ostrich plumes, he was strikingly reminiscent of the painter Moreau’s well-known representation of Salomé. This is a productive reversal, casting John as the tempter, a much-ignored thematic undercurrent in Wilde’s play.
It is a hard task to make a conclusive statement on this production. If Sezener intended to make a farce of “Salomé,” he is a rare genius and has succeeded without condition. Unfortunately, a woman using her sexual influence over a family member to get a third party killed is pretty grim stuff, some of the grimmest stuff imaginable, and a farcical interpretation of such a plot does a violence to the text that should itself be condemned. If, on the other hand, farce was not the intended effect, dire mistakes were made, because unadulterated farce was the product. In either case, it can be agreed: this is a “Salomé” that can stay behind the seven veils.
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