There’s a common phrase used in defense of experimental art that I’ve grown to detest that goes, “But that was the point”. It frequently pops up when discussing a performance immediately after witnessing it, and the phrase never fails to be irksome. The statement suggests that the shortcomings of a production can be overlooked if they serve the greater thesis driving the show’s creation. Or, put simply, a show’s demerits are purposeful and therefore should be nullified. However, I take exception to that notion. An artistic choice should be in service to both the betterment of the project’s quality/enjoyment as well as the statement behind the piece. To place either aspect above the other only serves to hinder the project either by cheapening the message behind the piece or devaluing the audience’s enjoyment. Granted these sentiments usually lures the tedious cacophony of “Oh you just don’t understand it” from self-entitled experts of the craft. Well what does it say for a production when one walks away unsure of what they saw, to “not understand it” as the hyenas would say? Theatre is unlike most other forms of art and storytelling in that the viewer only gets one chance to experience it. That’s it. There are no chances to painstakingly pour over every detail. Any subsequent exposure may be similar but the ephemeral nature of theatre prevents any two productions from matching. Should theatre then be beholden to a greater demand for clarity or does fleeting obscurity stimulate greater thought? Or, to borrow the controversial vernacular, am I missing the point?
Salomé, adapted by Katherine Wilkinson and Lemons Clemons from Oscar Wilde’s tragedy of the same name, depicts the biblical figure Princess Salomé of Judea recalling the events that led up to the infamous beheading of John the Baptist and her self-reconciliation with her involvement. Rather than depict Salomé in her traditional role as a seductress symbolizing the wickedness of female desire she is (thankfully) shown as a sympathetic, realistic woman torn by duty, desire, and family.
Salomé utilizes a six-actor ensemble cast with primary focus on the titular Salomé (Gabriela Pedraza). Furthermore the production is heavily movement-based in its narration, perhaps drawing visually and thematically on Salomé’s famous dance of the seven veils. Thankfully, Pedraza solidifies her status as the lead by being the standout performer both in acting and movement. She seamlessly runs the gamut of motivations and reactions as she’s intrigued and desirous one second and gruff and authoritative the next. Pedraza and Wilkinson (both as director and adapter) have clearly created a complex character out of stock-standard biblical figure depicted for the sake of outdated morality. The Salomé here is legitimately ambiguous in her morality, and curiously walks the line between self-assurance and doubt. A further nod must be given to Pedraza and choreographer Earl Kim for the dance of the seven veils which at once is inventive while offering exactly what one would hope to see from the infamous dance.
As for the rest of the cast, I greatly enjoyed Kriston Woodreaux as the John the Baptist. Both in movement and oration Woodreaux is a commanding presence as he predominantly stands statuesque far upstage from the cast. And once downstage he and Pedraza performed well off of one another, again in diction and movement. Tim Mateer and Megan Rabuse (King Herod and Queen Herodias respectively) definitely rounded out the cast well by offering some nice variety of character into the mix. Mateer’s raspy commands provided him with both humor and intimidation. Similarly, Rabuse never dropped the veil of stately respect and demanded the audience’s attention when she spoke. However, both were limited in the movement aspects of the production whereas the rest of the cast was fully-involved. It’s not that I expect every character to traverse the stage with acrobatic elegance, but when the narration is based on movement the lack of such is noticed. On the other end of the spectrum, Austin Vaught and David Benjamin Serna (The Page and the Syrian respectively) performed their choreography flawlessly but acting-wise they lacked the rest of the cast’s strong presence. Theirs is the first two-person dialogue in the production, and the scene left a lackluster impression on me. However, the tone improved afterwards when focus shifted towards other characters, and Vaught and Serna utilized their physicality instead.
The set is mostly stripped down to offer plenty of room downstage for movement. What few additions Ann Marie Gordon added to her set were effective in their sparseness. Two pillars, often illuminated in a bursting light pattern, act as the favored positions of authority for Herod and Herodias throughout, and two veil-like curtains frame John the Baptist throughout most of the production. Yet the most intriguing and noticeable set piece is a modern bathtub raised up in the center of the set. Paired with the occasional sounds of dripping water, the bathtub is often the central piece in many scenes, building off themes of cleansing, christening, and baptism. The production itself is book-ended by some harsh depictions of Salomé with the tub. The stage itself is furthered improved by Rachel Atkinson’s lighting designs which greatly aid the ever-changing tone of the production with stark colors, haunting illuminations, and distinct representations of locations.
Though Kim’s choreography and Wilkinson’s direction were clearly in tune with one another, and led to some striking visuals, they also led to my one big concern with the production and that’s the issue of clarity. Nearly the entirety of Salomé contains sequences of repetitive gestures, moments of indistinct actions (i.e. the placement of coins around the perimeter of the stage, and drawing symbols in sand) that clearly speak of a message or theme that they’re trying to get across to the audience, but the meaning is spoken through an unshared dialect. Some segments were easy to grasp such as an often-repeated snapping action that seemed to signify an authoritative command. Yet long sequences left me lost in the ambiguity of potential purpose behind the scenes rather than engrossed in the fluidity and representation of the choreography. Don’t get me wrong, the choreography itself was impressive, but when so much of the production is dedicated to these motions it becomes impossible to untangle them from the plot. In short, it confused matters more than it aided them.
It’s entirely possible that the production’s proceedings were completely clear to other members of the audience, but from my perspective I was left in the dark. As a visual spectacle Salomé was certainly an enjoyable experience, but I can’t help but feel there was a deeper message behind the show that wasn’t enunciated properly. The synopsis of the production given online states that “…Salomé identifies herself and learns what it means to have agency in her own body.” This is noticeable through the play’s dialogue, but the physicality of the production does not seem to aid this character arc. Somewhere along the way I fear there was some miscommunication in theme or vision that led this otherwise solid production to feel muddled. Or perhaps I simply don’t understand it and miss the point.
Salome by Gale Theatre Co. continues playing at the Vortex Repertory Company this weekend at 8pm on Thursday, Friday, andSaturday.