Through Nov. 8
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With “Salomé,” adapter/director Yaël Farber turns the biblical tale on its head.
While Farber uses Oscar Wilde’s then-scandalous 1883 “Salomé” as the premise — Herod’s stepdaughter Salomé demands the head of Iokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils — her one-act now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is otherwise something entirely new. Rather than cast Salomé as a vengeful femme fatale, Farber re-imagines her as an agent of revolution.
The action unfolds backwards. It “begins at the end” insists narrator Nameless Woman (fiercely played Olwen Fouéré), the older Salomé and an embodiment of unnamed women from the past. She sets the scene in Roman-ruled Jerusalem where Pontius Pilate is top dog. He’s focused — in no particular order — on collecting taxes, building aqueducts and keeping the populace at heel. Lesser powers include the debauched Herod (Ismael Kanater) and the Sanhedrin (played with perfect posture by Yuval Boim and Jeff Hayenga) who maintain the Hebrews’ religious tradition and collect Temple tax.
Unsurprisingly there’s a whiff of insurrection in the air. The people are overburdened by the occupation and looking for a messiah. Enter Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair), a baptizer spreading ideas of rebellion and insurrection. His lines are delivered exclusively in Arabic (his words are translated by the ever present Nameless Woman and Yeshua the Madman played by Ricahrd Saudek).
As Nameless Woman moves the story back in time, the younger Salomé (the excellent Nadine Malouf) sits mutely, hooded and bound to a chair. By instigating the killing of Iokannan, she has lifted the radical zealot to martyr status, exactly what Pilate didn’t want. Moving further back to a fortress on the edge of the Dead Sea where Iokannan is held captive in an underground cistern, Malouf’s Salomé comes to life. Curious and determined, she uses her smarts and sensuality to persuade the jailors (Shahar Isaac and Elan Zafir) to allow her to descend a long wooden ladder to the prisoner’s damp cell. There, the heavily bearded Iokannan clad in his signature scratchy loincloth, baptizes the young woman. Reborn through water, Salomé is determined to defy her abuser and the powers that be. It’s both a pivotal spiritual and political moment for her.
Lyrical, visually striking and meticulously staged, “Salomé” is a sensory and audible pleasure as well as a world premiere production and STC’s entry in the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Composer and sound designer Mark Bennett’s ambient music sets the mood with drumming and tolling and the keening and operatic from cast members Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana.
Susan Hilgerty’s set morphs from a bare stage littered with straight back chairs and long sawhorse tables to an unfamiliar place of varied elements like falling sand, billowing veil-like curtains and water. Lit evocatively by Donald Holder, the set adapts itself to many moods and locales. Under Ami Shulman’s movement direction, the graceful 12-person cast moves slowly, almost trancelike, or they are very still on the sometimes rotating stage. And while the movement is deliberate and almost sluggish, the production never drags.
Farber’s Salomé certainly isn’t Hollywood, so don’t go expecting to see mantrap enticing holy man with a well-choreographed strip tease á la Rita Hayworth in the big screen version. Though still sexually charged, this is more about women’s voices, self-determination and political uprising.