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A CurtainUp Review
Salome, The Reading
The tag following the title of this limited run of Oscar Wilde's first play serves as something of a truth in advertising caveat for theater goers not to expect their Broadway-priced ticket to deliver the prophet Jokanaan's (a.k.a. John the Baptist) bloody head on a silver platter or a full-fledged dance of the seven veils by Salome. Yet, Salome: The Reading, while a far cry from what we associate with a fully staged production is also not quite as much a bare bones staged reading as the downtown docudrama, The Exonerated.
The actors frequently move away from their music stands and seem to know their lines well enough to make the scripts more prop than necessity. To enhance the sense of a full-bodied production, veteran costume designer Jane Greenwood has drssed the cast, which includes a baker's dozen of other actors, in a striking black and red palette of street clothes; lighting designer Howard Thies has created a reasonable facsimile of the head on the platter and Marisa Tomei does a sizzling dance even if it's more of a display of undulating belly than veils.
In any case, the real box office attraction here is Al Pacino, once again demonstrating that he's as larger-than-life a personality as Oscar Wilde, the man who wrote him this part of the tyrannical governor of Judea who married his brother's wife and now lusts for her daughter. Add three actors with, if not equal but respectable bang for the buck appeal -- Marisa Tomei as Salome, the spoiled princess who prefers the saintly prophet to her lustful stepfather, even if she can only have his severed head; Dianne Wiest as the the aristocratic Herodias; and David Strathairn as the righteous prophet whose rejection of Salome costs him his life. Who could wish for anything more?
Fans of Wilde's more mature social comedies like The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere's Fan and An Ideal Husband might wish for more of their epigrammatic wit than the flowery poetry of this first play, written in French with Sarah Bernhardt in mind. Despite the beautiful imagery, they might also prefer some of the diverse sources that inspired his feverish one-acter; for example, Massenet's opera and Mallarme's poem (both titled, Herodiade, a Flaubert short story (Herodias) and the Bible (Matthew 14: Mark 6).
Even viewers willing to accept the scripts on music stands as an effective device for a fuller appreciation of the poetic language, might wish that director Estelle Parsons had managed to make the sum of this Salome's parts coalesce into a more unified and moving drama over the two years the concept has been in development at the Actors' Studio, and with showcase readings at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn and the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie.
While the ornamental style has not affected the popularity of Salome, (the one by Richard Strauss), it has mitigated against Wilde's play being as frequently revived as his later works. Perhaps this semi-obscurity explains its hold on Pacino, an actor who not only has a bent for chewing scenery but who also likes to chew on an idea as persistently as a dog chews on a bone (e.g. his Looking for Richard). He is said to be the driving force behind this limited Broadway run even though he's previously played Herod in a 1992 Circle Repertory Company production (fully staged and an even more limited run).
I didn't see Pacino's earlier take on this role, but like it or not, his Herod is a very funny guy. Maybe, short of doing Salome as an eye-poppingly inventive puppet show, as the Hensen Puppet Festival did three years ago, humor is the best way to play him.
Pacino, who is no stranger to playing tyrants is here part gangster (his voice more reminiscent of Marlon Brando's Don Corleone than his own Don), part charmer, and mostly his own royal jester. Unfortunately, his oft repeated siren sing-song "Dance for me Salome" is aimed more at getting laughs (which, he does!) than conveying the danger edged command inherent in a despotic ruler's plea. Pacino is charismatic, as always, and, yes, fun and funny to watch, but what you respond to is the charisma of an iconic movie star.
Tomei, who looks smashing in a red halter top and black skirt, plays Salome as a kittenish, spoiled princess (more modern East Hampton or Beverly Hills than ancient Greek). Unlike Pacino, Strathairn never strays from the grand and tragic Greek mode -- a style echoed by Chris Messina as a young Syrian who is enchanted by Salome (alas, poor Messina, whose suicide early on is depicted by his sitting silent with his head bowed, must hold this pose for the better part of the rest of the play). Dianne Wiest plays Herod's sought after and now disdained wife Herodias with poised and welcome understatement though, in light of the over-the-top Herod, this at times borders on detachment.
Wilde's melding of diverse sources to suit his own creative vision may have made Ms. Parsons feel empowered to let her actors interpret that vision in a pot pourri of styles. However, in the final analysis, the heightened appreciation of the text which are her goal is provided not by what happens on the central playing area, but by Yukio Tsuji who sits at the side of the stage performing the evocative score he composed for this production.
The Internet Theatre Bookshop "Virtually Every Play in the World" --even out of print plays
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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