Review: Salomé by Gale Theatre Company
by Brian Paul Scipione
“Never Felt So Near”
Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, but practically used as both a greeting and a farewell (none too distant from the Arabic word for peace: salaam, also used for hello and goodbye), is derived from the same root word as the name of the real-life and biblical character Salomé.
Named for peace, Salomé is recorded both by history and the Bible as a person not known for it. She is notorious as a treacherous female seductress who caused the death of John the Baptist. The story has been recaptured and celebrated in countess poems, plays, operas, paintings, literary accounts and at least twelve films in the last century alone. Neither the Bible itself nor famed historian Flavius Josephus ever establishes Salome as the dancing woman, daughter of Herodias, who caused the death of John the Baptist. That hasn’t stopped tradition from branding her.
Oscar Wilde’s 1892 symbolist play Salomé was one of the first to make much ado of her as a cunning vixen using feminine wiles to inveigle the powerful and cause death. The licentious nature of the dramatic work was too much for the London audiences of the time, and it was quickly banned, allegedly because the depiction on stage of biblical characters was not allowed. The play was written in French (note the accent in the title) and debuted in Paris in 1896. Wilde’s version soon became sacrosanct, the inspiration for almost all the later versions. It seems that Oscar had -- maybe unwittingly -- sealed her reputation.
Austin’s Gale Theater Company declares its goal: “We strive to make performance that is aesthetically arresting, physically daring and ensemble driven.” They have succeeded beyond question with their latest performance, Salomé, (note the accent, a nod to the fact that it is loosely adapted from the Wilde version). By no means are they doing a recreation, however. The production sets the timeline: “Salomé’s story begins after the death of John the Baptist. It starts when she has been left alone to grieve. On her own.”
And then the explosions begin. . . .
The first, a bursting geyser of water accompanied by the shrapnel splash of tear-like water drops spraying about the room. The second, a long desperate gasp for air: greedy, hungry, nay voracious, in an effort to suck the air of life back into long stifled lungs. More crashes of water and splashing,attended now by a staccato series of smaller but no less desperate gasps for sweet oxygen. There’s a resounding smack of flesh on porcelain as a lone female figure attempts to steady herself and take in her surroundings. There will be another harrowing slap of flesh on wood as the actor tumbles off the stairs onto the floor. At no point can we say that an all-embracing tranquility will return to her. Eyes darting, dripping hair flailing about, movements slow and cautious and then abrupt and anxious. . . the exquisite Gabriela Pedraza, like the character she embodies, has done the unimaginable: she has turned herself inside out for all the world to see.
Faulkner famously said of writing something to the effect of ‘Do not tell the reader how to feel, make them feel.’ In many ways this is the goal of all art. The playwright uses the actor as a vessel to convey their message or story, and the actor ideally does so in such a way that the message comes to life. It is not merely delivered but infused with meaning, context, emotion, despair and/or alacrity. The director and producer are charged not only to fine-tune these deliveries but -- to the extent of their own choice of involvement -- to interpret the story or message. This can be as simple as updating it for contemporary audiences or as complex as disagreeing with what has long been accepted as the playwright’s original vision. It is, perhaps, most common to do this with Shakespeare. The theatre community revels in the beauty of his language but stumbles over what was, at the time of writing, was perfectly acceptable, including clear instances of racism, sexism and nationalism. Any historical figure is susceptible to having their real lives eternally distorted by the vagaries of historical accounts (and, just imagine all, this was before Wikipedia).
Gale Theatre Company’s Salomé offers a great deal of vindication, maybe even redemption, for the real-life daughter of Herodias. Not that she is cleared of the charges against her: betrayal, corruption, abetting a murder and more. These are the mere play-things of myths and myth-makers.
The revision of Salomé’s reputation takes a far more important form. Her humanity is restored. She is not cast as some kind of cold calculating Disneyesque villain out for revenge. She is a person. A woman. A little girl. She is a torrent of true and visceral emotion. She is a queen and a pawn in her own life.
Pedraza's performance conveys all this through form, movement, fury and stillness. Her vocal work, whispered poetry and haunted cries are every bit as emotive as her dancing. And her dancing is sublime. This is the unknown Salomé as created by the player. She makes us feel the painful position, the wanting desolation and the hopeful yearnings of the true Salomé. Why should Salomé remain a stereotype, a bogey meant to scare females away from embracing their gender?
Gale Theatre Company’s experimental play is everything modern theater should be, and we are most fortunate to have it here in Austin.
August 05 - August 20, 2016
2307 Manor Road
Austin, TX, 78722
more info TBA (May 16, 2016))