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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 305-306

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Salome: The Reading. By Oscar Wilde. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City. 10 May 2003.

It would be hard to think of any other word to describe the production history of Oscar Wilde's Salome than opulent. The work has been famously adapted as an opera and a ballet, and Peter Brook's production of Strauss's opera, with Dalí-designed sets and a dress made out of thousands of peacock feathers, is simply the most extreme example of the design excess that has been brought to both the play and its adaptations. Such opulence, which has at times reached decadent levels in the minds of some critics, has long been associated with Wilde. Consequently, some have thought of Wilde as an apolitical playwright. However, several recent productions have rejected opulence and explored the social politics implicit in the play. In Estelle Parson's Salome: The Reading, this trend towards anti-opulent and political production develops into a feminist critique and an exploration of the theatre's potential to subvert received hierarchies.

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Figure 1
Al Pacino and Marisa Tomei in Salome: The Reading. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Salome: The Reading is a collaboration of historic significance, pairing director Estelle Parson, famed for her multiethnic and multilingual productions, with Yukio Tsuji, who for twenty years has been the house composer at the edgy, international La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. From the moment I first saw the stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City, I knew this would be a radical departure from past productions. The set was rather bare; clusters of black music stands and wood and metal folding chairs sat close to the audience, stage left and stage right. In the center of the stage, a slightly raised T-shaped platform formed the throne room for Herod. Another square platform, downstage and raised only one step from the ground just like Herod's throne room, suggested Jokanaan's cistern. Yukio Tsuji performed with all of his instruments stage left in full view of the audience. Equally noticeable was the absence of the stairway where, at the end of the play, Herod stops midascension and pronounces the death sentence for "that woman!"

The actors emerged scripts in hand. This was not necessarily surprising, given that the production was billed as a "Reading." However, this was not a strict reading, or rather, the production played with the conventions of the reading to produce both critical detachment and empathy in the audience. The actors often sat scripts in hand or stood before the music stands. At other times, however, [End Page 305] they were mobile and sometimes delivered lines off-book. Frequently, the actors delivered their lines to the audiences in the manner of a reading; other times the actors created intimate moments between characters. The Dance of the Seven Veils, as performed by Marisa Tomei, was profoundly theatrical and arresting. She instantly switched from a reader into character, performed a frenzied, erotic dance—ripping off her top at the end of the dance and leaving herself exposed—and then just as quickly returned to her role as reader. With the simple gesture of picking the script back up, Tomei broke the emotional spell, foregrounding actor over character.

In that one dance, Tomei dramatized the dialectical relation between actor and character, allowing the audience to see how the actor's personal agenda and politics emerge in the creation of her art. Moments before the dance, with her script in hand, Tomei established her own status as an actor distinct from the character she presented. This bifurcation was strategically subverted during the emotional dance, when Salome made eye contact with Herod, and then reestablished, when the actress suddenly, very glaringly condemned the audience—the voyeurs—with a conscious stare. In the process, the audience was allowed to see multiple characters—Wilde's Salome, Parson's Salome, Tomei's Salome, the historical Salome, and Marisa Tomei—all conflated into one body. The fluid boundaries between actor and character in this production allowed for a social commentary on...


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