"Salome" is Oscar Wilde's oddest and least-performed play. The current production, in which Al Pacino plays Herod, accentuates the oddness. If it does little to illuminate the text, it at least clarifies why it is so seldom done.
Like Wilde's most performed play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," "Salome" is an attack on the conventions that underpinned Victorian society. But where the former is all hard edges and brilliant surfaces, the latter is meltingly soft, reeking of the silken costumes and tapestries that defined the theater of Sarah Bernhardt, for whom it was originally written (though she never actually performed it).
The softness of "Salome" is one of the things that make it so hard to act. Unlike "Earnest," which is a series of elegant but tough verbal slugfests, "Salome" is, quite literally, estheticism with a vengeance, an act of sacrilege draped in the most luxurious, deliquescent prose.
When, for example, Jokanaan, the prophet whom Herod has imprisoned in a cistern, thunders about the Son of Man, Salome taunts him by asking, "Who is this Son of Man? Is he as beautiful as you?" She thus counters Jokanaan's biblical oratory with an almost dizzily feminine sensuality.
Similarly, when Salome has performed her dance for Herod and demanded in exchange Jokanaan's head, Wilde's Herod does not argue with her in moral terms.
(One can imagine the wit Wilde's fellow-Irishman Bernard Shaw would have put into Herod's mouth; one can imagine the wit Wilde himself might have put into Herod's mouth had he written the play in English for a London audience, rather than in French for Bernhardt's spectacle-loving Parisians. Even the translation is not his.)
Herod makes no moral arguments at all. He simply goes into exquisite detail about his jewelry collection, trying to make his stepdaughter a counter-offer, though some of the temptations he presents are of limited appeal ("onyxes like the eyeballs of dead women," for example).
Wilde has turned the biblical story, a confrontation between Christianity and paganism, into a confrontation between Christianity and his own religion, dandyism. When, at the end of the play, Herod orders the death of Salome, it is because he is disgusted by the sight of her kissing the bloody head she has claimed as her prize. It is esthetic, not moral revulsion.
If nothing else, Pacino's Herod is definitely a dandy. Pacino minces about the stage and speaks in an almost ethereal tenor voice that bespeaks decadence.
Pacino captures the esthete in Herod, but mainly portrays him as a wacko, like many of Pacino's film roles.
Though his voice and accent have been refined (in a way Pacino has not managed in other classical roles), making Herod simply a madman diminishes the force of the play.
Sheryl Lee makes a very roughhewn Salome. She is not a particularly sensuous heroine, and even her dance - choreographed by Lar Lubovitch - is more acrobatic than seductive.
Suzanne Bertish is effective as Herodias, the most brazen of the characters Wilde has devised. She has married her husband's brother and seems to have consented to her first husband's rubout without must protestation. This is a tough broad, and Bertish does her justice.
To do the play itself justice, however, requires an understanding of Wilde's world that goes beyond mere pathology. The closest this production comes to that understanding is Zack Brown's sensuous set - a perfect backdrop for this grisly evening At Home With the Herods.
Oscar Wilde once defined his tragic purpose as "to walk in purple and be remote."
Al Pacino's unexpected but brilliant choice of Wilde's symbolist drama "Salome" as a vehicle for his triumphant Broadway return - he is playing it at the Circle-in-the-Square in repertory with another play, Ira Lewis' "Chinese Coffee," which will be reviewed next week - certainly has the actor walking, even wallowing, in purple, but shows him as anything but remote.
Pacino's portrayal of Herod as a sybaritic, epicene despot, slithering round the stage like a contented slug, talking with the orotund tones of epicurean relish, seemingly a connoisseur of inconceivable perversions, proves a study in decadence that surely Wilde would have appreciated and even Aubrey Beardsley applauded. This is a performance that takes a virtually unknown closet masterpiece and shows it theatrically viable.
For a great play - and, against most modern expectation and academic opinion, I suspect that "Salome" is a great play - Wilde's biblical shocker has had remarkably little visibility. Written just 100 years ago - what an unexpected centenary gift! - the play has had a strange performance history.
The play, written first in French - the translation, unacknowledged in the current program, is nominally by Lord Alfred Douglas, although its final draft seems to have been by Wilde himself - originally was expected to have had Sarah Bernhardt playing the title role in the London premiere. But it was banned by the London censors, who invoked a little-used law that prohibited the representation of biblical characters on the British stage.
Eventually the ban was lifted, but not before "Salome" had been staged in France, in the original text, and all over Germany in translation. And then came the play's knockout punch - when it attracted the attention of Richard Strauss, and in 1906 was transformed into one of the most popular operas of the 20th century.
The play itself got lost in the melodic surge - and the rumble of all those loud and fat ladies (in fairness, some were merely well-built) performing the Dance of the Seven Veils to the sensuousness of Strauss.
Yet recently there have been signs of a turnabout. Steven Berkoff a year or so ago successfully staged the play in Dublin and at the National Theater in London, and now here we have this present limited run, directed by Robert Allan Ackerman.
One factor that has always told against the play is Wilde's reputation as a man of wit and epigram, hardly a fellow to be taken seriously. What is even more damaging is that his style - in that self-conscious fin de siecle mannerism - was extravagant to the point of absurdity, overblown to the point of bursting.
There are moments of exquisite ornateness here. For example, that famous list of jewels and gems that Herod offers Salome if she will just desist from her awkward insistence that on the decapitation of John the Baptist, or the poetic flim-flam of both Jokanaan himself and Salome as they unwittingly trade sexual agendas, or all the talk of moon and death. It is madly overripe, funny in precisely that sense which we now call camp.
Time and taste have long overtaken Wilde's passions, and now we must see his purple style in the occasionally comic context of unintended self-parody. Although I think it would be doing Wilde's intelligence an injustice not to recognize something inherently funny in the petulant rantings of Herod and the grumpy misery of his wife, Herodias.
But it is a tragedy - and its pain and horror, its inevitability and its sense of waste emerge wonderfully from Ackermann's staging and Zack Brown's somber nightmare of a setting.
Not all the performances rise much above the adequate - Suzanne Bertish is splendid as the jaded, embittered Herodias, but Esai Morales makes little of the moonstruck Syrian captain who dies for the love of Salome, Arnold Vosloo provides a wooden Jokanaan, and Sheryl Lee, while discarding her seven veils with an aplomb neatly choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, leaves untouched the heart of the horror - innocence obscenely spoilt, desire made grotesque and sensual appetite grown cankerous.
For Salome and Herod must be two halves of the same poisoned peach. They act on whim monstrously. Herod is prepared to give half of his possessions simply to satiate a lust to see his niece dance naked - it is lasciviousness made vicious by degree. As for Salome it is her whim - having been sexually thwarted by the prophet - to vent her passion on his dead lips.
Pacino, looking like a rouged and crumbling statue of himself, understands this - from his paunchy, self-indulged body to his cold, glittering eyes staring back blankly at the mirror beneath his skin - but Lee is too wholesome, her beauty too uncorrupted by thought.
But when Pacino utters - with the horrible awareness of self-destructive disgust - that final epitaph: "Kill that woman!" a shudder runs down your spine, as he puts the punctuation point on a performance that can only be called great.
Bejeweled and spangled, Al Pacino swaggers onstage as King Herod in "Salome" and raises his voice almost to a falsetto. He does not edge into this role; he dives headlong. It is a daring performance that flirts dangerously with camp but stays strictly within the character, at least the character as Mr. Pacino envisions him.
The actor is performing the Oscar Wilde play in repertory with Ira Lewis's "Chinese Coffee" at Circle in the Square. "Salome" closes July 23, "Chinese Coffee" July 15.
In the end, his Herod is close to Caligula or Nero. He would have been right at home on television's "I, Claudius" as a maddened monarch who is so accustomed to having his way that he is stunned when someone, in this case, Salome, challenges him. He is playful in his manipulation of power; she is fiendish.
As a feat of acting, Mr. Pacino's performance may remind one of Marlon Brando's more eccentric characterizations, his foppish Fletcher Christian in the remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty," for example. But it is heightened by Mr. Pacino's own particular virtuosity and gift for black humor. It is a performance that obscures everything else on the stage. This is a good thing. Without him, the production of "Salome" would be sad news for Wilde as well as theatergoers.
Supposedly Wilde wrote the play (in French) with little thought about seeing it staged. It has survived in the Richard Strauss opera more than in the drama itself. When it is performed, it is sometimes mocked, as in the Lindsay Kemp all-male version, which came here from England some seasons ago. The play is a most questionable choice for revival, a fact that is made even more evident in Robert Allan Ackerman's production at Circle in the Square. The principal encouragements for presenting it today would be an inspired directorial concept and a fine ensemble of actors. Neither is the case here.
With the exceptions of Mr. Pacino, Sheryl Lee as Salome and Suzanne Bertish as Herod's wife (and Salome's mother), the cast is a motley troupe, passable with a few of the supporting actors, insupportable with the soldiers, spear carriers and torchbearers. Mr. Ackerman's direction is effective in deploying the large band of troops and prisoners on the open stage. But there are far too many unintentional laughs, some of them provided by the ingenuous delivery of pretentious dialogue, others by the skimpy costumes.
Wilde's language ranges from the poetic to the bombastic, as when Jokanaan, the prophet (John the Baptist), fends off Salome's advances by saying repeatedly, "Back, daughter of Babylon." Undeterred, she catalogues what she loves about him (his eyes, his lips) while staring at other parts of his anatomy. All this ecstasy causes one of Salome's loyal aides to kill himself. It might propel a theatergoer to the exit were it not for the sudden arrival of Mr. Pacino. He immediately energizes the production.
Ms. Lee is as lovely as she was as Laura Palmer on "Twin Peaks," although she lacks that David Lynch air of mystery, which would be helpful in this context. She is straightforward and extremely determined. Naturally, anticipation runs high as Salome's dance approaches. Unfortunately, Ms. Lee's modernistic dance, as choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, is not very sensuous, despite the fact that she removes all those veils.
Ms. Bertish stresses one note, Herodias as battle-ax, but does it persuasively. From her performance, it is very clear why Herod would like to drop her and take up with her daughter.
To Mr. Pacino's credit, he holds firmly to his conception of Herod. Considering the decadence that surrounds his court, he seems to be a man with common sense, and someone who does not want to endanger the status quo. He makes an offer to Salome that she cannot refuse. Dance for him and he will give her anything "even unto the half of my kingdom." He is astonished at her choice: the head of Jokanaan.
Herod urges her to select another prize and lists the possibilities, from his great emerald to white peacocks to moonstones. Finally he arrives at chrysolites, chrysoprases and chalcedony. Mr. Pacino does not stumble over these tongue twisters. Nor does he allow Herod to lose his confidence even as he reaches a point of exasperation. Compelled to grant the request, he realizes, "She is her mother's child," a line the actor speaks with full irony intended. There is more to come from Mr. Pacino as he approaches his final vengeful command. He is the only reason to see this "Salome."
Al Pacino's entrance in "Salome" is a garish onslaught of black and gold silk robes, oversize jewelry and facial make-up that can best be described as depraved. His mouth stretched to a gash, his tongue darting lizard-like and his speech a drunken, world-weary slur, Pacino's over-the-top Herod is dissipation personified, at once silly and grotesque, creepy and comical, oddly entrancing and entirely in keeping with a production that is an explosion of Biblical kitsch.
As the lights go up on this utterly watchable revival of Oscar Wilde's once-banned work, audience first sees a soldier in sexual ecstasy (he's being serviced by a bound male slave), and the production's prevailing tone of decadence is set.
Director Robert Allan Ackerman ably guides his cast through the Wildean terrain, missing no indulgence in the play's bitter humor and baroque excesses.
The ultimate tale of a woman scorned, "Salome" is Wilde's take on the familiar story of John the Baptist, here called Jokanaan the Prophet.
Imprisoned in a well and railing hellfire and damnation, Jokanaan (Arnold Vosloo) draws the attention and ardor of Salome (Sheryl Lee), stepdaughter (and niece) of Herod (Pacino), the Tetrarch of Judaea.
Wilde's Salome is not the Bible's spoiled brat, but a drained, neurotic woman desperate for meaning and love, both of which she believes she's found in the prophet.
When Jokanaan, summoned from the well, rebuffs her advances, revenge is inevitable. Enter Herod, a king who spends too much time eying his beautiful stepdaughter, much to the consternation of his wife (and Salome's mother) Herodias (Suzanne Bertish).
After much wicked bantering and family squabbling, Herod requests that Salome dance for him and, in return, he'll grant her any wish. Her desire, of course, is the prophet's head on a silver platter.
"Salome" is an exercise in cynicism, almost entirely lacking in heroes--the closest to that breed is a young army captain (Esai Morales) so smitten with Salome that he kills himself when she turns her affections to the prophet.
He dies shortly after the play begins, leaving the stage to the royal degenerates and their entourage of foolish priests and cowering soldiers. Even the prophet seems more lunatic than holy man.
Ackerman and his cast revel in Wilde's quagmire, whether it's Herod whining about stepping in spilled blood or Salome performing a lewd, angry dance of the seven veils (quirkily choreographed by Lar Lubovitch). The result is often campy , usually overwrought and sometimes just plain goofy, but never less than intriguing.
As could be expected, Pacino dominates the production, doing vocal tricks that make him sound like a besotted Charles Laughton. He slouches in his throne, minces around the set and flirts with Salome.
Pacino only slowly uncovers the danger lurking beneath Herod's surface, his offhand disposition of Salome proving that a king scorned is the monster he accuses her of being.
As Salome, Lee gives a performance that manages to keep step with the scene-stealing Pacino, and that's no small feat. Her stint on David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" seems to have been good training, as she handles her more bizarre tasks (culminating in an erotic pas de deux with a very lifelike severed head) with ease.
Bertish, costumed like the evil queen in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," displays a wicked sense of comedy as Herod's brittle wife, and Vosloo, his long, scraggly black hair a sharp contrast to his sleek, pale body, is effective as the raving prophet. Morales is a bit hammy as the distraught swain, perhaps hoping to pack too much acting into too little time on stage.
Zack Brown's regal costumes are appropriately gaudy, and his set--a platformed terrace of Herod's palace painted entirely in bronze and partially lit by blazing torches -- is more than suitable in its nightmarish effect. Set makes very good use of Circle's troublesome theater-in-the-round.
Exactly why Pacino (or Circle in the Square, for that matter) chose to stage this seldom-produced play is a mystery.
Even with various contemporary touches "Salome," written in 1896, offers no revelations, no probing insights into modern life. The play, at least in this production, is a curiosity, a grotesque. But just try averting your eyes.