Just before Christmas, amid a jumble of half-built sets and strange props that make you feel like you're in the middle of a junk shop, an early rehearsal for a production of Oscar Wilde's most misunderstood work, Salome (which opened last week at Actors' Gang Theater), is in full swing.

Gary Kelley, the actor playing John the Baptist, keeps calling for his lines, cheerfully stumbling through his big speech. Everyone laughs. Director David Schweizer takes the cast through their paces over and over again, like a soft-spoken drill sergeant: “The rhythm of the dance could be a little quicker . . . The whole attitude could be more loaded . . .”

Written in 1891, in a sternly moralistic age, Wilde's play was originally vilified and censored for its “immoral” and “sacrilegious” treatment of biblical legend – though nothing could beat the Bible's story for sheer horrific tastelessness. After all, it was not Wilde who created the unnerving scenario of the amoral eponymous princess who silences her most vociferous critic, John the Baptist, by having his head cut off and brought to her on a silver platter – after she cavorts in a wild, lascivious dance for her stepfather, King Herod. It was Wilde, however, who had the temerity to tamper with a “sacred” text, to explore the dark recesses of the human psyche and bring them to light.

Historically, Herodias arranges for her daughter, Salome, to perform the erotic caper before asking her husband, the king, for John the Baptist's head; she is revenged through Salome. “So for Wilde to add Salome's own sexual-vengeance plot is very indicative of his sensibility,” Schweizer explains, “which turns the play into a direct conflict between spirituality and sexuality, and between sexuality and death.”

Wilde wrote Salome in French, partly as a tribute to the French surrealist poets whom he greatly admired, and partly, with typical Wildean mischievousness, just to see if he could pull it off.

Originally translated by Wilde's lover, Alfred Lord Douglas, a.k.a. Bozie, Salome first emerged in English as a pretentious effort to accentuate the excessiveness of the biblical text: Bozie peppered the play with ponderous thees and thous and other florid affectations. The result only confused audiences, which weren't sure whether to take it as serious drama, strange poetry or outright parody.

With the added misfortune of Wilde's infamous imprisonment for sodomy at the time of the play's first production, Salome was rendered an outcast in the theater until, some 80 years later (in the '70s), poet/translator Richard Howard happened upon the original French text and found the diamond hidden beneath the coal. “I realized,” he wrote later, “that the work is of an almost Beckett-like simplicity, its lyricism intense rather than intricate, its perversity authentic rather than archaic.” Howard immediately embarked upon a new translation to bring out “those qualities of color and tone which would enhance and reveal its true nature.”

As a result, lines such as “Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth, thou knowest that thou wilt do this thing for me” became “You'll do this for me, won't you, Narraboth?” A restoration rather than a radical alteration, Howard's streamlined, contemporary translation unveils Salome's moody, dreamy poetry – its terrifying, fascinating sensuality, its jarring boldness. Salome tries to seduce John the Baptist with the speech: “John, I'm in love with your body. Your body is white as the lilies in a field that has never been mown . . . Your hair is like bunches of grapes, the black grapes that hang on the vines of Edom . . .”

Nothing much became of Howard's translation until it fell into the eager hands of Schweizer, a stage director who has worked in major theaters on both American coasts and who “always wanted to take a crack” at Salome.

“I'm very excited,” Schweizer says, after dropping into a chair during a break. “This project is such a pleasure and curiosity for me . . . And this new translation is a step toward being able to look at the play as a meditation with themes, not as a pre-stylized piece.”

Schweizer describes peculiar directorial challenges presented by Salome. “The stage is full of characters who are on the whole time and not saying anything, just listening to Herod. So how you infuse life into that world which is gestural and choreographic is interesting. The other thing is the tone. I have a very mischievous, humorous attitude toward this work. How far can you go in that direction and still keep the humanity? Then, what do you do with the set? Transplant it? Deconstruct it? Make it abstract? On one level what I'm doing is traditional, albeit twisted and tweaked. The actors are in the court of Herod, wearing period clothes in the stand-and-hold-your-spear-and-deliver essence that I want to pay tribute to. At the same time there is this surreal sensibility to the whole thing. We're starting with a high-comic, clowning mode and choreographing an event that slowly becomes haunting. So I think it's going to be quite interesting, how it all comes together.”

Schweizer's desire to stage this particular play stems, he says, from his affinity for Wilde's themes:

“What drew me to the work was a deep empathy with the idea of obsessive longing and unfulfillable desire . . . Now, I'm not saying that there isn't something innately ridiculous about a girl walking around making love to a head on a platter. But one of the things that helps to make Salome more real is casting her as she was in the Bible – Salome was only 12. The actress we're working with, Tordy Clark, has a shot at making the audience feel [a child's] despair and sense of loss that her [first] love for John the Baptist wasn't able to be realized.

“As a man and an artist who has lived through the AIDS era, I find themes of obsessive desire very close and fascinating, because an artist requires that obsession to keep working.”

Yet Schweizer doesn't expect unanimous praise for his work, or Howard's or Wilde's. “From the start, people had very extreme reactions to this piece, exacerbated by the fact that it was consistently banned. And originally it was banned not for the shocking sexuality, but for the fact that John the Baptist went around in a loincloth! That was considered sacrilege, to portray a biblical figure partially clothed.”

As for the possible reactions to his production, Schweizer anticipates some dissention:

“There will be two kinds of people. The ones who don't know the play and will be getting a fresh experience, and the ones who know it and think of it as kind of a 'hard sit.' Even though it's only one act, it can tend to bog down. But with this staging, which includes a lot of dance and movement as well as a much more audience-friendly translation, I think people who are familiar with the play will find it a new experience as well.”

For a review of Salome, see New Theater Reviews in Calendar.

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