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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

One should look neither at things nor at persons. One should look only at mirrors. For mirrors show us nothing but masks.--- Herod

Oscar Wilde and Al Pacino don't seem like a natural fit but look at it this way. Salome is the most operatic of Wilde's plays, embellished with baroque adjectives and imagery, with repetitive lines ominous and subliminal ("something terrible is about to happen"), as shocking as the lilies Wilde carried as a trademark, as lurid as The Godfather.

Wilde's Irish wordplay and Pacino's Italian embedded dramatic sensibility play off each other, which may be one reason why Pacino has been obsessed with this play since he first saw Steven Berkoff's production in 1989. It's a role Pacino has played since its New York debut in 1992 and he has worked on the current production since 2002.< It's a staged reading but, although the actors never touch, under the inspired direction of Estelle Parsons, they move around the stage and the hybrid performance is the more dramatic for it. The poet in Wilde meant the play to be read.

Unlike the passive Salome in the Biblical version (Matthew 14), Wilde's dancing princess of Judea uses passion for her own ends. The bored beautiful teen-ager becomes obsessed with the prophet Wilde calls Jokanaan and the Bible John the Baptist. He trumphets prophecies of the coming of the Son of Man and a besotted Salome demands to kiss his mouth, lusting to absorb or silence the mystery of his passion. He repudiates her but doesn't forget. Even as he curses her wantonness, he can describe faithfully the daughter of Babylon with eyes of gold and gilded eyelids.

A drunken lustful Herod calls on Salome to dance for him, despite his wife Herodias's reproaches. Herod promises her anything and she agrees to do the Dance of the Seven Veils. In this production, Salome keeps one veil around her waist but, in her final movement, whips off her top and, as she throws herself backward on the floor with her head towards the audience, is naked from the waist up. When she rises, she drapes one veil around her neck. It dangles to her knees, concealing but never letting the audience forget the nudity beneath. She demands as her reward the head of the Baptist and Herod reluctantly agrees, although he murmurs superstitiously, He may be drunk with the wine of God. But his promise to Salome in the presence of the court prevails and the lights go off on Jokanaan's body, revealing only his head.

Salome comes to the front of the stage to have her way with the audience in her final soliloquy, darting her tongue like a serpent's: "Ah, you did not wish to let me kiss your mouth, Jokanaan. Well, I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth the way one bites a ripe fruit." Herod stands at the back of the stage, all his lust stripped away, as he sees it for what it is in Salome's obscene obsession.

Sarah Bernhardt was reluctant to do this play because Wilde made Herod the main character but he was very wise to do so and Pacino shows us why. In a role that could be over the top, Pacino abstains from the temptation to make it an aria. His Herod is an everyman, a powerful but aging monarch, who looks for regeneration in the body of a young girl. His Herod is touched by the wry humor of a man who has seen it all and has seen enough to be wary of the conviction of the popular Prophet.

Kevin Anderson's Jokanaan is a burly powerful presence and Roxane Hart, sparkling with jewels, plays Herodias as one who has seen every trick in Herod's hand and plans to trump them all. Jessica Chastain's youth, passion and long red hair make her Salome flame on the darkened stage. A chorus of 16 actors play the supporting roles and Yukio Tsuji composed the subtle music.

Salome is closer in feeling to The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Ballad of Reading Gaol than to such comedies as The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance. It was made into an opera by Richard Strauss which was performed by the Los Angeles Opera a few seasons ago. An unlikely candidate for a film, movie fans can see it as play-within-a-play obsessing Albert Finney in the wonderful 1994 film A Man of No Importance (1994). And for two short weeks, Angelenos can see an absorbing interpretation of a historical, poetic, dramatic and rarely revived classic.

For a review of the staged reading during it's limited Broadway run three years ago go here

Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Director: Estelle Parsons
Cast: Joe Roseto (The Young Syrian), Rene Rivera (The Page of Herodias), Jack Maxwell (First Soldier), Brian Delate (Second Soldier), Steve Roman (A Cappadocian), Daryl Dismond (A Nubian), Kevin Anderson (Jokanaan), Jessica Chastain (Salome), Jill Alexander (A Slave), Al Pacino (Herod), Roxanne Hart (Herodias), Geoffrey Owens (Tigellinus), Ralph Guzzo, Robert Heller, Ed Setrakian< Jack Stehlin (Jews, Nazarenes, Sadducees, etc.)
Lighting Design: Howard Thies
Costume Consultant: Shukkan Hue Kolenaty
Sound Consultant: Erich Bechtel
Music: Yukio Tsuji
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: April 27-May 14, 2006
Where:. Wadsworth Theatre, Veterans Administration Grounds, Bldg 226, 11301 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, Reservations: (213) 365-3500
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 27.
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