Monday, April 20, 2009

Off The Wall's SALOME

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Oscar Wilde’s Salome isn’t quite like any of the rest of his work. Written entirely in French, Wilde’s original play had kind of a poetic brutality that isn’t lost in the English translation that Off The Wall Theatre is using for its staging of the drama now through April 26th.

At least . . . I assume there was a poetic brutality to the original script . . . I’d never actually read the thing and don’t speak French. Walking into the theatre, it’s apparent that this is a really ambitious project. The set is an impressive one for the tiny space. (And while I’m on the subject, it occurs to me that, between Milwaukee Chamber, Milwaukee Rep and Off The Wall, April has been a really good month for sets in downtown Milwaukee.) While it doesn’t have the kind of polish that would come with a bigger budget in a larger space, Off The Wall’s Salome set (designed by David Roper and Dale Gutzman) is strikingly surreal. There’s the entrance to some kind of pyramidal structure dominating the space . . . painted in exactly the color the middle-eastern pyramids aren’t. The color, which won’t be described here, takes the feel of things away from any earthly historical representation . . .we could be in the apparent pyramids of Cydonia on Mars with a color like that . . .and the entire production follows an attempt at an artistic surrealism that channels sensual emotional truths to the stage. It almost works, The score (the source of which isn’t given credit in the program) adds to the mood immeasurably.

The story of King Herod’s lust for Salome and the subsequent beheading of John the Baptist are brought to the stage in a single 100 minute act . . . no intermission. The audience is there with a story, the infamous climax of which is advertised on the front of the program. The heat in Off The Wall’s storefront space made things a bit uncomfortable on the Saturday evening performance I attended, but the atmosphere wasn’t unbearable, even with the cramped, stuffy confines of a sell—out crowd.

The cast does a pretty good job. The haunting repetitions of Wilde’s poetry would be difficult for any group of actors to warp itself around. Off the Wall does an okay job of staging the language, aided by typically good performances by Nate Press, Liz Mistele and David Flores. Press plays John the Baptist (“Iokanaan” in the script.) He’s suitably chaste and seer-like in the performance . . . almost messianic . . . but his recent performance as an aspiring actor in Spiral Theatre’s Die Mommie Die! Overshadowed this one a bit . . . and the otherworldly poetry of it was undermined a bit by Press’ brilliantly kitschy, over-dramatic performance there. Press has an indefinable stage presence, which is palpable even while he spend most of the play out of sight in a pit.

Mistele is in her natural element here as the title character, looking particularly sinister and saturnine in sharp face paint. Veiled in a gauzy, red silk, she seems infinitely more graceful than the rest of the cast, which works to the advantage of the production. The costuming is sparse on all of the men, who seem very common in contrast to Mistele in the role of the beautiful Salome.

Flores summons enough vulnerability to the role of Herod to make him a sympathetic character even when he’s being distasteful. Press, Flores and Mistele make for a solid center to the dream-like surrealism of the poetic action.

The otherworldly atmosphere onstage helps a great deal, but there are a number of difficulties with the directorial execution here . . .the only serious one being the blocking. With a large set that takes-up much of the stage space, much of the action takes place in the foreground of the stage.

I was sitting a few rows back along the center aisle and I’d say about 25% of what’s going on onstage is obscured . . . and what with the placement of the seats, it’s difficult to imagine much of the rest of the audience having a better view, though it’s possible I just had a particularly bad seat. Some of the staging is brilliant—Mistele spends a good deal of the play in spots where she can cast a piercing gaze into the audience . . . looking at her, you swear she’s looking straight through you . . .eerie . . . but one of the few aspects of the play likely visible to the entire audience.

The biggest frustration here was the big moment between Salome and the severed head. She’s crouching next to it in embrace and she’s completely obscured by the people in the front row. It’s the final, moody moment and it’s lost on most of us.

Off The Wall’s production of Salome runs through April 26th.

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