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Not your typical Bible story

Molly Griffin | Monday, April 10, 2006

Take a Biblical story adapted for the stage by an Irish writer in a production inspired by Japanese and Filipino performance traditions – and a picture of the production of “Salome” emerges. The wide-ranging influences obvious in the production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” made the show a truly unusual theatre experience that was intriguing on a number of levels.

The production, presented by the Department of Film, Television and Theatre, showcased an all-student cast with the exception of Salome, who was played by visiting performer Olga Natividad. Professor Anton Juan, an internationally acclaimed director who has put on productions around the world, directed the show.

It also had an unusually long run – 11 performances ranging from between March 28 and April 9 – for a theatre production.

The influences of Kabuki and Kyogen, both Japanese theatre forms, and Pangalay, a type of Filipino dance based on half-women, half-bird figures, made the production an exceptionally unique experience. The elaborate costumes, the staging and the movements of the characters on stage added a different perspective on a traditional, Christian Bible story.

The Biblical story behind “Salome” tells the story of how John the Baptist was beheaded. The story – found in Mark 6:17-28 – involves Herod’s, ruler of Galilee in Philistine, marriage to his brother’s former wife Herodias, who is Salome’s mother. Herod asks Salome to dance for him, promising her anything she desires, and she asks for the head of John the Baptist.

In Wilde’s version, which changes the Biblical version slightly, the idea of lust and unattainable desire figures as the central theme. Salome desires the head of John the Baptist – called Iokanaan in the play – because he rejects her amorous advances. Herod offers Salome “up to one half” of his kingdom in exchange for her to seductive dance, and he is forced to give her Iokanaan’s head instead. The Syrian, another character in the play, kills himself because of his unrequited desire for Salome as well.

The costumes – which were designed by Richard Donnelly and showed heavy influence from Kabuki theatre – were breathtaking and made the production visually stunning. The impressive hats and capes of the music playing Nobles (Meghan Hartmann, Megan O’Donoghue and Kathleen Hession) and the boxy bamboo armor of the soldiers (JudeAnne Jasso-Murad and Madison Liddy) were particularly unusual.

The more familiar Samurai armor seen in Herod (Luke Cieslewicz), the Young Syrian (Jonathan Toupes) and Tigellinus (Larry Richey) showcased the ability of the costume designers to add diversity to traditional designs.

The Young Syrian’s armor was made of fibrous material, while Herod’s vivid red and black costume looked slicker and had more detailed patters. Tigellinus’ costume was one of the most impressive, with a suit of armor made from what appeared to be interlocking black stones and a helmet with antlers on it.

The most beautiful costumes may have been the robes that Salome and her mother Herodias (Krysta Dennis) wore. They intricate vivid colors and intricate designs of their Japanese robes were particularly stunning. While Salome’s gold-embroidered, white robe was beautiful, it was the intricately detailed red robe worn by Herodias that garnered the most notice. The colors of the costumes also served to highlight the constant references to red and white that occurred throughout the action of “Salome.”

The Kabuki make-up was minimal enough to emphasize the impressive costumes, but still added a degree of theatre to the production as a whole. The absence of make-up also served to differentiate certain characters, notably Iokanaan, from other actors on stage.

The music accentuated the half-sung, half-spoken dialogue, which added an interesting twist to what one would expect from traditional theatre. Noises, such as the banging of a stick or the ring of a bell, also served to emphasize certain words or moments during the play.

While not at the center of the action, the music’s constant presence in the play, coupled with the not-quite-sung words, gave the performance a unique quality somewhere between a musical and a stage play.

Despite the nearly all-student cast of “Salome,” the play could have passed as a professional production. Guest artist Natividad made a fantastic Salome, but the entire cast was fantastic. Particularly notable performances included David Tull’s impassioned Iokanaan and Luck Cieslewicz’s gleefully nasty, and later tragic, Herod.

The highlight of “Salome” is the dance Salome gives for Herod, and this production did a masterful job of showcasing its potential. Natividad’s dancing was engaging, and the layered dress that came off in pieces during her performance was an achievement in costume design. The number also showed off the music and set design of the production.

The show’s final moments, which showcased the danger and destructive power of lust, showed Salome’s horrible lust for Iokanaan by having her kiss his decapitated head. The final moments of the play, while somewhat disturbing, were highly engaging and powerfully emphasized the major themes of the play.

Many plays combine different influences and try to place old stories in new perspectives, and “Salome” masterfully balanced the diverse influences it encompassed without distracting from the story itself.

From the costumes to the staging, the music to the performers, “Salome” not only blended different culture elements but also balanced all of the elements of theatre without letting any one overwhelm the others. This combination made “Salome” an exciting and entertaining theatre experience.