Footsteps Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

Where there is sorrow there is holy ground.

–Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”

As a playwright, Oscar Wilde is almost universally admired for a quartet of brilliantly barbed social satires–and then there’s Salome, the subject of widespread disagreement. Is it a deadly serious–and deadly dull–drama or a high-camp joke too recherche even for Wilde’s friends? Derivative drivel or deeply personal (if covert) confession? Moralists have denounced Wilde’s account of ancient history’s most famous striptease as sacrilegious scandalmongering, while more liberal-minded types have tended toward bemusement or condescension. At least one of Wilde’s friends thought it was intended as burlesque and offended Wilde by laughing at it. (“One was ill prepared for Wilde’s serious moods, they were so rare: as I listened I decided that this could not be the result of one of them,” W. Graham Roberston later said.) And critic John Lahr, in his introduction to Wilde’s collected plays, noted that by serving as the libretto for Richard Strauss’s opera, the script “proved, if nothing else, the truth of Voltaire’s dictum that anything too silly to be said can always be sung.”

But the intensity of feeling in Salome, which can exert considerable power even without Strauss’s lush music, belies Lahr’s shallow dismissal. British director Steven Berkoff’s touring revival, which played here last year, emphasized the script’s chilly dreaminess with a stylish somnambulism, evoking a 1920s silent film with its black-and-white decor and slow-mo pacing. Now, marking the 100th anniversary of Salome’s premiere (in Paris, while its author languished in an English jail for “indecent acts” of homosexuality), an off-Loop rendition affirms the work’s compelling tragic power. Eschewing effete stylization and campy irony, the Footsteps Theatre Company’s low-budget, highly charged production–powered by Dale Heinen’s sensitive direction and by acting that ranges from competent to breathtaking–proves that when the text is played straight from the heart without skeptical second-guessing, it can be mighty gripping theater.

The story–originally found in the Bible, oft reworked over the centuries, and greatly reinvented by Wilde–concerns the execution of the prophet John the Baptist, here called by the Hebrew name Jokanaan, by Herod Antipas at the urging of his wife, Herodias (formerly married to Herod’s brother), and her daughter, Salome. Imprisoned for denouncing Herod’s marriage, Jokanaan attracts Salome’s attention with his guttural rantings against the immorality of Herod’s court. Salome convinces a young Syrian guard to bring Jokanaan to her against Herod’s orders, promising the guard her favors in the form of “a little green flower” in return. But when she meets the bearded, grimy evangelist in the flesh she’s overwhelmed by desire for him. (The disgraced, disillusioned guard commits suicide, prompting one of the play’s most lyrical passages–a heartbroken eulogy by the Syrian’s male lover that prefigures the morbid rhapsodies of love and death to come.) Jokanaan resolutely resists the teenage temptress, and Salome’s lust turns to hate.

Urged by the drunken Herod to dance for him, she agrees on condition that he give her Jokanaan’s head on a platter. Herod is appalled by the request–unlike his wife, he believes Jokanaan is a man of spiritual power and fears to commit “a crime against some unknown god”–but is forced to acquiesce. When the hideous gift is presented to Salome, she kisses its mouth: “There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood?…Perchance it was the taste of love.”

In a program note Heinen speaks of her intention to give Salome a pre-Christian spin, linking the title character with “the great Goddess of our past [who] is still with us, although she is now veiled.” Seizing on the play’s recurrent moon imagery–it’s variously described as “a woman rising from a tomb,” a “cold and chaste…virgin,” and “a mad woman who is seeking everywhere for lovers…naked in the sky”–Heinen links the moon with Salome herself. And like the moon, Salome has phases.

Tere Parkes, in a highly physical performance as Salome, begins as a child–self-absorbed, blase, and restless with stirrings she doesn’t understand–then passes into tempestuous, sexually aroused adolescence when she meets Jokanaan. (Tellingly, her encounter with the prophet is marked by the spilling of blood.) Obsessed for the first time with someone other than herself, she pursues her inamorata with the fierceness of a wild beast, mounting him as he cowers in fetal withdrawal from her demands. Some critics have seen Jokanaan’s rejection of Salome as a homosexual’s expression of antifemale revulsion; David Mitchell Ghilardi’s dazed, quivering performance here repudiates that interpretation, establishing that Jokanaan is sorely tempted by his aggressive pursuer. Realizing that the only way she can have what she wants is to indulge Herod’s lascivious interests, Salome submits in a pulsing, powerful dance–a bacchic ritual of orgiastic celebration, but something more frightening as well. Systematically stripping away her translucent veils until she is for all practical purposes nude, Parkes makes clear the willful self-abasement the dance conveys without denying its raw erotic power.

Finally gifted with the shrouded head of Jokanaan, Salome enters her final phase–maturity. It’s here, in the drama’s drawn-out climax, that Parkes’s performance and Heinen’s direction achieve the cathartic power of classic tragedy. Where other actors have portrayed Salome as vindictively victorious, Parkes shows us a girl shocked into womanhood by her awareness of her own guilt and loss. As she comprehends the enormity of Jokanaan’s death, she recognizes the inevitability of her own mortality. A true tragic hero, she’s ennobled by self-understanding at the moment of her destruction (this is the first interpretation I’ve seen in which Herod’s order to kill Salome doesn’t seem a superfluous nod to conventional morality, like Rhoda being struck by lightning in the movie version of The Bad Seed).

“Wilde had Aeschylus in mind as much as the Bible,” writes Richard Ellmann in his biography of the writer. Euripides too, I think: weeping as she cradles the prophet’s head, Parkes’s Salome recalls Queen Agave in The Bacchae, who slowly awakens from her maenad’s madness to the realization that the “lion” she slaughtered at Dionysus’ command was in fact her son. In this scene, Salome evokes the ritualistic expression of sorrow that is a fundamental aspect of tragedy, and of the religious impulse from which it sprang. The effect is complemented by Joe Jensen’s inspired set and lighting design: a tree, the traditional image of knowledge and fertility, rises from a circular terrace whose stones suggest the rings of an ancient tree trunk under the lunacy-inspiring blue glow of the moon.

Parkes is superbly matched by her husband, David Parkes, as Herod. A far cry from the dissolute old perv of Hollywood cliche, this Herod is a handsome, swaggering sensualist–a little too drunk for his own good, but a virile man who might very well appeal to Salome if he weren’t her stepfather. Initially recalling the sexy, sardonic young Jack Nicholson, Parkes comes into his own during Herod’s attempt to dissuade Salome from demanding Jokanaan’s head, offering her just about everything under the sun–sorry, moon–in a stunningly sustained display of desperate terror that suddenly burns out in futility. Strong support is provided by an ensemble cast (including women as Jewish priests–a nice touch) who deliver Wilde’s lush, symbol-laden text with convincingly understated conviction. (Particularly noteworthy are Dawn Alden as the vain and trivial Herodias, Anish Jethmalani as the Syrian guard, Kevin McDonald as his mournful companion, and Robert Schleifer as the silent, enigmatic executioner.) But the greatest risks–and rewards–of this production are the Parkeses’ full-throttle lead performances.

Heinen’s staging doesn’t deny the dangerous humor in a script whose juxtaposition of irony, sensuality, and lyric pathos is in a way more contemporary than Wilde’s more stylistically consistent comedies of manners. (For all his seriousness of purpose, Wilde indulged in at least a few in-jokes–the “green flower” Salome offers the Syrian, for instance, is a reference to the green carnations affected by Victorian gays.) But the purgative power this production unleashes is genuinely startling–all the more considering the stringent financial and technical limitations of a small fringe company like Footsteps (“Chicago’s Premiere Women’s Theatre”). This dynamite Salome is a heartening reminder of the heights to be achieved when an off-Loop theater with imagination and guts, unhindered by the big-budget effects and shallow scripts on which too many local troupes depend, takes a strong text and gives it all it’s got.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): performance photo.