Perverse absurdity 

Atlanta Opera and Shakespeare Tavern take different approaches to the scandal of Salome

Imagine an incestuous Ozzy Osbourne with the authority of a king and Kelly with a sultry figure, and you're close to the scenario laid out in Salome. Oscar Wilde wrote the play in 1893, and it was faithfully adapted as an opera by Richard Strauss and the librettist Hedwig Lachmann in 1905. Both the play and the opera are on stage in Atlanta this weekend. Based loosely on biblical accounts, Salome tells the story of a princess who performs the irresistibly erotic "dance of the seven veils" for her stepfather and half-uncle, Herod Antipas, then asks for the head of John the Baptist ("Jokannan" in this telling) as her reward.

It is an absurdly grotesque and perverted story, banned when Wilde wrote it, quickly closed when Strauss premiered it, still scandalous today. "Salome is fat and bursting and sickly sweet and overripe; stuffed, full, crammed, more than you can eat," says Marc Verzatt, stage director of the Atlanta Opera's production. The play was modern ahead of its time: There is no sparkling moral, no brave hero, no cathartic noble tragedy. The one good man, Iokannan, has gone mad. He is beheaded and his corpse is defiled by an adolescent femme fatale whose amorous advances he dared to repel.

It's hard to even know how to respond to such extremes of violent depravity. Like watching "The Osbournes," moments are simultaneously hilarious and horrible, as when Herod, after demanding a litany of warped pleasures, forgets what he wants next. You laugh, then find yourself choking. Yet something about it is seductively compelling.

Salome is experiencing a resurgence. Its absurdity speaks to the current age, where the rule of law is usurped by the push of hegemonic power and the president smirks through his speeches. In Atlanta this weekend, Wilde's play is showing at the Shakespeare Tavern, and the Atlanta Opera is performing Strauss' opera at the Fox Theatre. In New York, Al Pacino and Marisa Tomei currently headline a Broadway reading of the play.

Wilde wrote Salome in the latter days of the Victorian era, a time when London productions of biblical stories, if permitted at all by the Examiner of Plays, were infallibly pious. A gay man famously impatient with his contemporaries' prudish hypocrisy (and later jailed for his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas), Wilde clearly intended Salome to be a scandal. In Wilde's play, the rulers and holy men of authority are revealed as the true perverts, while the prophet who dares to condemn them is sealed in a cistern.

The fundamental challenge when producing a work of such excessive corruption is to tell it credibly, so that the audience doesn't disengage in irrepressible disbelief. The Shakespeare Tavern and the Atlanta Opera have responded to the challenge with very different approaches.

"You have to commit fully," says director Drew Reeves of the Shakespeare Tavern. "The worst thing to do with a story like that is half-measures." A shocking story should, in this view, be told in a shocking way. Any attempt to make it more palatable betrays the story's intent and works against its nature. So Salome (Barbara Cole, a very fine actor, though her dance is regrettably wooden) slips off her veils until she is wearing nothing but golden panties with a few thin lengths of sheer fabric hanging from her hips. Given the head of Jokannan, she rolls on the floor with it in lusty ecstasy, blood dripping from the dangling veins and arteries of the neck onto the robe her servant has wrapped around her.

Meanwhile, "less is more" is the underlying principle of the Atlanta Opera's production. The story is inherently shocking, in this interpretation, and doesn't need the help of gratuitous degradations. "I think we've seen far too many productions where it's all about taking the severed head and shoving it up your crotch with no clothes on," says artistic director William Fred Scott. "As soon as you start going, 'Oh, I really have to make this gory,' then it becomes camp." This Salome (Aimee Willis) is a subtler, less brazen seductress. Jokannan's head on a platter is abhorrent enough; Salome's kiss, planted upon the lips of the severed head, a sufficient abomination without her writhing on the stage.

The Opera's production is a dagger to the Tavern's club. Both break your heart and empty your stomach, but the former does so with greater precision and less collateral damage. The Tavern production is at times hard to swallow and likely to rise back up the gullet. But perhaps this is more about what we want to believe -- that no one could be so hyperbolically vile -- than what is genuinely plausible. Truth is given greater latitude than fiction. Recent reports from Baghdad's horror chambers have reaffirmed what we would fain believe: That the powerfully corrupt delight in unspeakable deeds. Such unwelcome revelations, however traumatic, should not be sealed in cisterns.


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