SALOME, Circle Theatre, and LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN, ShawChicago, at the Chicago Cultural Center. In these two 1892 plays, Oscar Wilde focuses on sexual scandal in high society. Puritanical Lady Windermere, believing that her husband is an adulterer, nearly destroys her life by leaving him for a shallow suitor; what saves her is the intervention of the woman she thinks is her husband’s mistress. In Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod becomes obsessed with the imprisoned prophet John the Baptist (here called Iokanaan), who rails against her family’s immorality. Proving herself depraved even by the standards of Herod’s decadent court, she dances for horny Herod in return for Iokanaan’s severed head on a silver platter, so she can kiss its lips.

Two years ago the Footsteps Theatre Company unveiled Salome’s tragic power by setting the play in the pagan past. Now Greg Kolack’s sexually explicit staging, set in a contemporary nightclub, uses our own culture to dramatize what Wilde’s friend Frank Harris called the play’s “cold lewdness and cruelty.” Kolack’s characters are booze-swilling, coke-snorting hedonists whose couplings are depicted in a pantomimed opening orgy. Fanny Madison’s turquoise-haired, casually wanton Salome seems driven more by perverse playfulness than by desire for Jeff Charlton’s dirty, demented Iokanaan; her dance of the seven veils is a grinding strip-tease performed to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” John Simmons’s manic motormouth of a Herod dishes out dialogue with the sardonic sass of a Joe Pesci or Danny DeVito. Fliply modern line readings of Richard Ellmann’s translation of the original French give a funny twist to the exotic text–incantatory references to a pale moon that turns bloodred are oddly appropriate to these wasted druggies. But as Salome builds to its horrific climax, the production fails to keep pace; Kolack’s clever, often comic updating ultimately trivializes the tale rather than giving it new resonance.

Lady Windermere’s Fan proves both hilarious and suspenseful in ShawChicago’s free performance, with actors reading from scripts at music stands. The concert format is perfect for the play’s droll mixture of romantic melodrama and epigrammatic social satire; under Robert Scogin’s direction, the actors give their intelligently inflected line readings just enough facial expressiveness to suit the lack of costume and movement, making us care about the characters’ flirtations with self-destruction.

–Albert Williams