Scena Theatre Revives "Salome" for an American Audience
Where does the time go.
Scena Theatre, under its artistic director and founder Robert McNamara, is winding up for its 25th season, now ensconced in its current digs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on the H Street NE corridor with a production of Oscar Wilde’s eccentric, stylized and scandalizing version of “Salome.”
Looking at this production, which McNamara directed, populated with what seems like a patchwork map of local theater history, you can be excused, if you were around at the beginning of this quarter-century stretch, that very little has changed. McNamara and Scena Thaetre are still the masters of the rarely-if-ever seen, the theatrical road not taken, the Vasco de Gamas of theatrical exploration.
Things don’t always go just right at the often vagabond Scena family, but we can thank McNamara and company for bringing us works rarely performed otherwise in Washington over the years. He gives us Greek tragedies, contemporary Easter European plays, rising young Irish actors, and a borderline obsessive string of Samuel Beckett works (thank you so much). There are also the lesser known entities for Us audiences, such as the recurring presence of Stephen Berkoff’s plays, a powerful presentation of “The Persians” in the Tivoli Theater complete with actual thunder, the audacious “Mein Kampf” by George Tabori about a young Adolf Hitler, and even a recreation of Orson Welles’ radio play “The War of the Worlds” (at the DCAC).
The 25th anniversary season seemed—except for “Salome”—almost typical: a production of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, a Berkoff adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorhosis,” and “Shining City” by one of the current top dog lads of Irish writing, Conor McPherson.
“Salome” is different for Scena in the sense that Wilde’s work—his popular comedies—is not a staple of the Scena iconography. But then “Salome” is very wild Wilde—if it’s anything, it’s in cahoots with the Strauss opera, it has the sulfurous odor of scandal and sweet, and the sexual extravagance that trails Wilde’s latter-day downfall like a cacophonous, witchy lament.
What McNamara has done with it results in an evocation of another time and place, and a sort of mash of theatrical styles. It’s biblical with the presence of the man in the pit—the bleary-eyed imprisoned prophet Iokanaan (John the Baptist) and the overheated story of Herod, who lusts after his daughter Salome with tragic results. The play made its murky, painful debut in 1893—written in French no less and promptly censored by the Victorians, for whom the charming Irishman Wilde was both an affront and a chief wit, while ultimately and finally a debauched victim.
But McNamara, instead of looking too far back, evokes the Roaring Twenties of Gatsby and America, as courtiers dressed in tuxedos and clingy gowns make metaphorical, almost sing-song comments coming from faces painted white, appearing like mimes who memorized speaking.
There are courtiers, Romans, and a young Syrian, who is infatuated with the languidly draped Salome, played with an overpowering petulance by Irina Koval, who often performs with the stylized (and mosty silent) Synetic Theater Company. At the center front it all is the prophet, prophesying with a passion that has its own ardor, elevating death and rejecting the flesh offered with insistence by Salome, who has her own, simpler obsession. “I would kiss your lips, and I will,” she insists to the prophet, who shuns her.
In walks Herod and his wife Herodias, his eyes ablaze with want and desire, his manner seemingly casual, his ardor for himself and his desires always to the fore. He wants Salome. “You look at her too much,” Herodias says, often and with contempt. But want is want. He says “Dance,” and finally she gives in, but with a price: “I want the head of Iokanaan,” she says.
Herod fears the prophet, fears his death so much so that in a remarkable speech, really an inventory of his heart’s desires fulfilled, he tells her everything he would give her, except that damned head. Brian Hemmingson, a heavy man, turns that speech into a spillage, a kind of aria of imagined desires—“I have a hundred, rare pheasants, the last of them I’ll give them to you.”
Hemmingsen has a history not only with Scena, but the late Horizons Theater, the Washington Shakespeare Theatre, and has graced Washington stages for decades, often with his talented wife Nanna Ingvarsson. He is a deceptively gifted actor who can startle with the power of his voice and the variety of his movement. This is (no pun) a crowning achievement of a mad, supremely avaricious, reckless king.
Hemmingsen, the tart-voice Rena Cherry Brown as his wife, Koval and the remarkable Joseph Carlson as the prophet, dominate the stage when they need to. But there’s also time to appreciate the chorus and Tony Strowd as the young Syrian smitten with Herod, making his use of the word “princess” sing.
In the end, “Salome” is Scena’s 25th Anniversary gift to Washington theatre.