Photo above by the Hinge Collective
Photos below by Scott Suchman
Photos above by Scott Suchman
Photos below by the Hinge Collective
Photos above by the Hinge Collective
Excerpts from reviews
Stunning lyricism . . . bold artistry . . . a provocative vision. . . .Performed by an international cast of 12, ‘Salome’ is a feast for the senses, an elegantly constructed spectacle of abundant invention and surprise. . . . Tyrannical Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (a fine T. Ryder Smith) . . .
– Washington Post
Remarkable and disquieting. . . Turn aside all you think you know about the fabled Salomé and her brief mythic encounter with John the Baptist. Acclaimed director Yael Farber has boldly and confidently reconstructed the deeply-rooted, sexualized Salomé canon into a provocative, mystical, radical new telling. . . . An intriguing, provocative production that is meant to instigate reactions. . . . A rare experience.
– DCMetro Arts
A bold new work, stunning and emotionally powerful. . . . The stillness and inner fire needed to stoke this kind of stylization, realized beautifully by this ensemble cast, might have only been matched by Tadashi Suzuki’s company in Japan. . . . Likewise, the well-pedigreed cast of international performers is terrific, and the actors have circumvented the perils of acting in ancient costumed drama, by imbuing their work with dignity yet without stiffness. T. Ryder Smith as Pontius Pilate binds his historical figure most successfully to a recognizable contemporary power broker. . . . A magnificent, hypnotic and quite magical work.
– DC Theatre Scene
Visually stunning but also challenging . . . Gorgeous and inventive, but also bleak and extremely slow-paced. Despite the play clocking in at less than two hours, the action moves as if in slow motion, often set balletically to chant-like singing. It’s an effect that requires patience and investment from the audience. But that investment is rewarded with a beautifully staged, entirely new telling of the title characters’ driving forces and circumstances. . . . T. Ryder Smith is both menacing and pragmatic as a power-hungry Pontius Pilate . . .
A compelling work of power and contradiction . . . An affecting production that is exquisitely beautiful to watch even as it challenges and provokes.
– Broadway World
A transformative commentary on colonization, resistance, and the often overlooked power of women to change the course of history. . . . From its relentless risk-taking to its incorporation of Arabic and Hebraic texts, STC’s Salomé was the most captivating production I’ve ever seen. . . . Extraordinary acting . . . The caliber of the acting is visible from the second the performers walk onstage. . . . Every decision the actors and director made—Yeshua the Madman’s (Richard Saudek) incredible physicality, Pontius Pilate’s (T. Ryder Smith) unyielding arrogance, and Malouf’s raw, breathtaking power in her nudity—revitalized the show, rendering Salomé a continuous torrent of action and beauty.
– MD Theatre Guide
A mesmerizing séance of voices and images that literally transports you to the inner sanctuary of a holy yet terrifying erotic palace of bondage and desire. . . . A rich tapestry of language delivered by this production’s international ensemble is the ultimate stylistic signature of native South African director Farber. . . . The ensemble cast does not have a single weak link in this seamless portrayal of royal moral decay and debauchery. . . . Pontius Pilate is played with unflinching directness by T. Ryder Smith . . .
– Communities Digital News
This hypnotic theater piece should now appeal to anyone with an interest in early Christianity and Hebrew history, and all who love seeing a fascinating story unfold onstage in unexpected ways. . . . By show’s end, audiences are entirely sucked in, as if huddling beneath a tent to escape a desert sandstorm.
– Washington City Paper
A thought-provoking dramatic work that raises uncomfortable questions about colonialism, occupation, privilege, and who controls the historical narrative. . . . All the members of the company bring utter commitment to the work, immersing themselves deeply in both the words and the ideas that remain unspoken.
– Talkin’ Broadway
Reconfiguring such a sex symbol as Salomé—Herod’s stepdaughter who does the Dance of the Seven Veils and afterward orders the beheading of John the Baptist—into both a victim of Roman-occupied Judea’s misogynist society and a spark of revolution is the kind of perspective the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival was meant to surface. . . . Visually stunning . . . The production is as much an interpretive dance as it is a theatrical drama. . . . How characters move is integral to their depictions, from the gruffly aggressive cop-like Pontius Pilate (T. Ryder Smith), who can’t get any answers about what happened “that night,” to the Jewish high priests, Caiaphas (Yuval Boim) and Annas (Jeff Hayenga), who move with studied religious pomposity and stand like statues in prayer. . . . Despite this deeply personal and gender-centric depiction of the story, Farber’s adaptation doesn’t take clear sides. The high priests may be pompous and they may be hypocrites, but they make inflammatory demands on the Roman authorities, too, and in history such demands fueled the Jewish uprising. Pilate on the surface is clearly a cruel authoritarian, but he has common sense political judgment, and we can empathize with his frustration trying to understand the peoples of Palestine. Iokanaan may be a man of God and a victim of colonial rule, but he seems dangerous on a psychological, messianic level. The idea that our ideals and our fates often are twains that never mesh is spoken by one of Herod’s guards, a Hebrew willing to participate in the torturing of Iokanaan on behalf of his Roman oppressors because ‘We do not belong to ourselves.’ . . .
Above, top: the rehearsal room; below: Yael Farber.
1. Ami Shulman leads an exercise; Yael and Ami; Ismael and Yael
2. rehearsing the Jersusalem scenes
3. a trust exercise; Ami works with Nadine; Ramzi and Nadine
4. Ismael in front of research wall; lunch break; rehearsal discussion
5. many script revisions; running lines; a run-through
6. run-through (taken by STC photographer)
7.run-through; first day on stage
8. on stage; learning the house; Yael with god-mic
9. Nadine and Susan Hilferty; teching the curtain of sand; crew on stage
10. working with on-stage lights; teching the dance; Yael, Nadine, Ami
11. working out stage combat; Nadine and Ramzi; Ismael and Shahar
12. Shahar and Elan; Olwen; Nadine
13. Shahar rehearses with sword; red sand used as blood; stage managers Laura and Elizabeth
14. teching the beheading; Nadine rehearses dance; teching the rainfall
15. Yael, center; Nadine; cast running lines in lobby
16. notes in the green room which broke out into a rehearsal
17. Yael’s last day; pre-show warmups
18. pre-show warmups
Above: first day of rehearsals
Below: closing night.
Top photo, front row, r to l: Mark Bennett, composer; Ami Shulman, movement director; Elan Zafir, actor; Yael Farber, playwright/director; Richard Saudek, actor.
Back row, r to l: Drew Lichtenberg, dramaturge; Susan Hilferty, costume/set designer; Michael Kahn, Artistic Director, STC; T. Ryder Smith, actor; Rob Jansen, assistant director; Olwen Fouere, actor; Ismael Kanater, actor; Jeffrey Hayenga, actor; Nadine Malouf, actor; Ramzi Choukair, actor; Yuval Boim, actor; Shahar Isaac, actor; unknown.
Bottom photo, front, l t r: Olwen Fouere, T. Ryder Smith, Tamar Ilana.
Seated, l to r: Lubana Al Qatar, Elan Zafir, Shahar Isaac, Nadine Malouf, Yuval Boim, Ismael Kanater.
Standing, l to r: Ramzi Choukair, Richard Saudek, Jeffrey Hayenga.
Below: opening night
Washington Post, Peter Marks – Salome, We Hardly Knew Ye – With a stunning lyricism, South African director Yael Farber applies her formidable imaginative talents to a well-traveled biblical story and propels it on a revelatory new path. It’s the tale of Salome she transforms on the stage of the Lansburgh Theatre, in an adaptation that defiantly challenges what we think we know about the Judean princess who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
Why, Farber asks in her hypnotic, 90-minute “Salome,” set in Jerusalem at a time of Roman occupation and Jewish servitude, must we trust the conventional portrait of Salome as the dark instrument of a hideous revenge? Could there not be a more virtuous explanation for her terrible demand? Was there a political dimension to her action, one that in fact showed that she was an ally of the doomed prophet and thereby helped spur the Jewish people to insurrection?
What a provocative vision Farber entertains in this world-premiere production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. This is the group’s entry in the region’s hugely ambitious Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and the bold artistry on display not only validates the festival’s mission but also shows the topical capabilities of a classical company taking risks as it engages with a world-class theater artist. As she proved with “Mies Julie,” the racially charged version of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” set in the South African desert, that she brought to Shakespeare Theatre in 2013, Farber has a gift for infusing storytelling with a fiercely feminine sexual power.
Her radical “Salome,” performed by an international cast of 12, is a feast for the senses, an elegantly constructed spectacle of abundant invention and surprise. Set amid the holiest architecture of Jewish antiquity, Jerusalem’s Second Temple, “Salome” uses simple props and materials (tables, curtains, a ladder) and the rawest of natural elements and forms (sand, water, the beauty of the female body itself) to propose a theory of Salome (the ravishing Nadine Malouf) achieving an ennobling end.
The language here, mind you, is sometimes of the lulling variety intended to echo the patience-testing formality of old texts. The Jewish high priests (Yuval Boim and Jeff Hayenga) chant mystical hymns; tyrannical Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (a fine T. Ryder Smith) sputters about seizing Jewish treasure to pay for aqueducts, and impassioned Ioakanaan, aka John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair) speaks every one of his admonitory speeches in a foreign tongue, Arabic (and not the language of Jesus’s time, Aramaic). Still, the exotic music of the words, enhanced by the stirring percussive accompaniment by Mark Bennett, ratchets up the tension as the story advances to a brutal climax.
Farber’s “Salome” is partly her response to a previous dramatic rendering of the story, by Oscar Wilde, that was considered scandalous in its day but hewed to a less sympathetic treatment of the title character. Here, she’s the hero, a hypothesis abetted by the enduring ambiguities surrounding this daughter of King Herod. The acknowledgment of the central mystery of Salome is underlined right from the start in the Lansburgh: A woman in white robes materializes, to offer an account of the angry Pilate’s imprisonment and torture of Salome, after John the Baptist’s martyring execution. Called the Nameless Woman and played by the magisterial Olwen Fouere, she is the embodiment of Salome as an older woman and of the murkiness of Salome’s identity: She is never identified by name in the gospels.
The director/adapter seizes on this fuzziness for some intriguing poetic license. Not to give too much away, but the story relies on some contemporary concepts of victimhood and empowerment to explain Salome’s motives: why, for example, a daughter of privilege — and abuse, at the hands of Ismael Kanater’s despicable Herod — might find liberation in Ioakannan’s subversive advocacy of God over Rome. His death, secured famously by her, would be exactly the kind of incitement of his followers the Roman authorities are trying to avoid.
Salome’s epiphany is evoked thrillingly in a scene in the underground cell where she visits Choukair’s Ioakanaan — like her, cruelly abused by men in authority. Newly baptized by him, she sheds her worldly raiment jewel by jewel and garment by garment, until she’s naked before God, in lighting designer Donald Holder’s ecstatic illumination. It’s a moving act of purification. In Malouf’s confidence and stillness, she demonstrates Salome’s newfound resolve, her sense of higher purpose.
Any number of other striking moments spring from the visually driven creative minds of Farber and her team. Susan Hilferty’s costumes aptly serve the austere outlines of the text, and movement director Ami Shulman provides beautiful, dreamlike tableaux of the actors, moving as if through water, or posed on the turntable Hilferty places on her spare and agile set.
Such is the staying power of these impressive 90 minutes that you’re compelled at the end to wonder why it never occurred to you to consider the flip-side possibilities for so many stories like this, handed down through time. Theater is often at its most intriguing when it is offering answers to questions an audience never even thought to ask. 10.14.15
DCMetro Theatre Arts, David Siegel – Turn aside all you think you know about the fabled Salomé and her brief mythic encounter with John the Baptist. Acclaimed Director Yael Farber has boldly and confidently reconstructed the deeply-rooted, sexualized Salomé canon into a provocative, mystical, radical new telling.
Farber is a wondrous dare-devil in her reconstructed tale of 1st century A.D Judean turmoil. She places interactions between Salome and Iokanaan (John the Baptist) at center-stage. It is their deliberate actions that set off the fires of Hebrew revolt against Roman occupation.
“I want to create the possibility that this woman [Salomé], living under an occupying regime, came to a deep understanding of her selfhood, one that allowed her to drive forward a political agenda.” said Farber in Shakespeare Theatre’s marketing materials.
In her retelling, Farber conceives an un-named mature woman (a dignified, graceful Olwen Fouere) to provide a “feminine narrative.” She is a womanly presence, a narrator always on stage and in-sight. She is a female long in memory survivor and recorder taking the audience back and forth across time and geography.
With her remarkable, disquieting adaptation of a tale many of us thought we knew from a few lines in the New Testament, some Roman sources and Oscar Wilde’s erotic, decadent femme fatale approach, Salomé, Princess of Judea, is no longer a youthful, sexualized being acting in pique. She is no longer dancing a Dance of Seven Veils for her captivated step-father, then asking for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. The motives for the beheading go way deeper into markedly political and spiritual worlds, was my take-away.
So, what are the sources for Farber’s deconstructed/reconstructed interpretation? According to program notes, Farber searched beyond the usual sources to garner background uses as examples a Babylonian myth of Queen Ishtar with her miraculous visit to the Underworld and the sensuality of the Biblical Song of Songs to name two sources.
Then, Farber connected her vision of Salomé to the historically turbulent times of mounting Jduean anarchy around A.D. 63. It is a time when Rome tried to subdue and colonize Judea knowing there was “a need to shed blood in order to civilize” as Farber puts in the mouths of one her Roman characters. After all, civilization meant “clean water from aqueducts” with “everyone for sale” according to the various Romans that populate Farber’s Salomé.
But in the deserts of Judea were headstrong zealots unwilling to negotiate, let alone compromise with Roman colonizers. “There was a stench of the future” is how Farber’s Iokaan describes it. The Romans must be removed. But how?
After an unworldly transcendent, if not heavenly encounter with the imprisoned Iokanaan, a formerly unsure of herself Salomé acquires self-confidence. She places herself on the side of spirituality and the insurgency. She will serve a coming upheaval in her own way. In a single action leading to Iokaan’s beheading, Salome become the explosive charge that starts a revolution. Is she an angel with a suicide belt?
As Salomé, Nadine Malouf exudes a serene intensity, clear fierceness and confidence as she internalizes the lessons Iokanaan has provided. When we see her at her most vulnerable; when completely unadorned and standing stately and soundlessly, Malouf appears at peace with herself. She is disrobed, but far from naked. She is a sensual ascetic as she is baptized by Iokanaan. As an Arabic-speaking Iokanaan (but regularly translated by another character) Ramzi Choukair is vividly magnetic, masterful prophetic otherworldly presence. A man speaking in tongues, yet understood. A man bringing fear to the Romans and Sanhedrins alike, with his charismatic powers over others. He was a man seeking out a Queen to carry forward the revolution he envisioned. He found her in Salomé.
There are a number of male characters in Farber’s Salomé. No matter who these men are; they are ultimately powerless once the real change agents, Salomé and Iokanaan take action. These men are ever-talkative, power-brokers such as the compliant Hebrew High Priest Calaphas (Yuval Boim), the somewhat uncompliant Hebrew High Priest Annas (Jeff Hayenga), the appointed overlord Herod (Ismale Kanater) and a domineering Pontius Pilate (T. Ryder Smith). There are also key military male characters who are “no longer Hebrew, but soldiers” who have varying obedience to Roman rule (Elan Zafir and and Shahar Isaac). Richard Saudek is a prophetic as Yeshua the Madman who sees the future but is not believed.
Under Farber’s direction, the production has a highly stylized, formal, if not ritual-like approach and repertoire. With the guidance of Ami Shulman, movement director, there are very precise, sharp, clear-cut movements and poses. Scenic and Costume Designer Susan Hilferty matches Farber’s vision with a minimal set but with some major theatrical devises and surprises. Sand, water, flowing huge curtains, a well-used turntable and the spectacular use of a 15-foot ladder add amazement to the production. Donald Holder’s chiaroscuro lighting design has formidable use of spotlights while Mark Bennett’s softly percussive music composition and sound design are springboards into this Salomé are choral riffs from singers Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana.
The production crossed into contemporary times design elements including scenes that strongly match photographs from Abu Ghraib prison and its iconic hood photo. There are moments of water-based interrogation of Iokanaan, that are palpable visual associations to water-boarding.
We can never will know what really happened or why out there in the desert or in Jerusalem. But, Yael Farber makes a great case for point-of-view with this dominant, authoritative argued case indeed. As she wrote; “I don’t want to shy away from the great danger of the feminine, from the notion of powerful sensuality attendance in this story. Of course women are dangerous. That is the beautiful thing about us.”
You may not agree with Farber, but this Salomé is a confident creation that is nervy and gutsy. It is an intriguing, provocative production that is meant to instigate reactions. It is a consummate part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
For those with the taste for a radical theatrical experience with a new outlook to assault old ways take a chance and visit with Salomé. It will be a rare experience.10.15.15
DC Theatre Scene, Susan Galbraith – On October 13th, we were treated to the debut of a bold new work, visually stunning and emotionally powerful. Yaël Farber has conceived, adapted and directed a fitting “crown” to the Women’s Voices in Theatre Festival by re-telling the story of Salomé as a woman’s narrative. By witnessing the work, we the audience help to reclaim her and, in some sense, other unknown women whose stories have been erased or usurped by the men and their powerful empires.
The story is wrought grand in scale yet spare in style and staging and, I imagine, not an easy one to perform or, for some perhaps, to experience.
The characters enter slowly from off stage right in solemn procession, as if moving out of history books across a mostly bare stage. Their pace forcibly slows down our own expectations, inviting us into another time and place. The white haired crone comes to sit center stage, with her legs planted wide and her gaze unyielding. Men gather upstage of a long latticed table and freeze in a tableau that eerily conjures a familiar oil canvases such as The Last Supper or other Biblical paintings.
A young dark woman listens to the men cutting deals, including her stepfather, the man known historically as Herodias. The long table at which they are gathered will soon be disassembled and become both an underground aqueduct in which the white haired woman hides and a ladder for the young woman’s descent to a small cell (or perhaps underworld) that holds the prophet and revolutionary figure Iokanaan or, as some people know him better, John the Baptist.
We think we know what happens next. But we’re challenged by the crone to listen closely. She has said, “I begin at the end. One by one, I have watched…” This is her story.
To mine for textual fragments, Farber has not only reached back into Hebraic texts but Arabic and Babylonian works as well. Salomé is delivered in multiple languages, then translated line by line, mostly by The Nameless Woman, a kind of narrator and older “other” to the historical daughter of Herodias. Rather than adapt the play by Oscar Wilde and collude with the interpretation that Salomé was a decadent and vengeful traitor to the cause, she chooses to elevate the relationship between Salomé and Iokanaan through the ecstatic poetry of the Song of Solomon. Salomé moves inexorably toward playing a necessary and important role in history.
To identify a visual language for the piece, the work not only evokes the classical paintings made of Biblical times but also uses the pouring of sand and a baptismal ritual with water to create a symbolic world where sand is plenty and water is scarce and precious – a world both distant in time and space but one also familiar to us through the current troubles in the Middle East. The torture of this John the Baptist figure with “waterboarding”made some gasp behind me, crying out in recognition and desire for a kind of national atonement.
To understand and fully appreciate Farber’s work is to see that Farber and the creative artists around her have come out of the great theatrical tradition from the international festival stages of the second half of the twentieth century. The great wall of silk curtains that comes tumbling down and the heightened physicality in performance style of the richly swathed performers evoke Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil. The economy of gesture and use of silence call up a certain elegance of truth in the staged “source theatre” works of director Peter Brook and his Lab company as they conducted theatrical and linguistic experiments internationally in places as far flung as Persepolis and villages in Africa.
The stillness and inner fire needed to stoke this kind of stylization, realized beautifully by this ensemble cast, might have only been matched by Tadashi Suzuki’s company originally out of Toga, Japan.
The grounded movement that revealed strong legs and an almost ferocious sensuality of Nadine Malouf and Olwen Fouéré, sharing the character of Salomé, recall for me the stunning actress Nuria Espert and the special physicality of her Spanish company. These two women are so beautiful they mesmerize, and their stage presence fulfills this vision of Salomé. Maloud reinvents the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils. When Salomé grabs the floor-to-theatre-roof length of silk drapes and begins to whip them like great butterfly wings as she arches in a great backbend, it is something both terrifying and magnificent at once, a statement both deeply personal and politically powerful.
Appreciating these theatrical forbearers, nonetheless Farber has fashioned a fresh new way of combining the elements to tell this story in a commission created specifically to celebrate the Womens’ Voices Theater Festival. This same director, who brought us the stunning Mies Julie in 2012, forges once more a fearless, searing vision and demonstrates she has earned her “world class” reputation, taking her place in the pantheon of international “greats.”
Likewise, the well-pedigreed cast of international performers is terrific, and the actors have circumvented the perils of acting in ancient costumed drama, by imbuing their work with dignity yet without stiffness.
Ramzi Choukair is dazzling physically as the stripped and tortured political prisoner Iokanaan, John the Baptist, whose work in this version is to overturn the empire and save his own people. Dramatically, Choukair is able to bring humanity to a character that often feels flinty as stone in his unwaving morality. We see him wash and lead the common people in the Jordan in service and with humility. His standing up against both Rome and the priests from the temple, speaking Arabic in a guttural roar, has all the fire of an anarchist and all the self-denial of a martyr.
Farber has not just directed a visually stunning show, but her writing of arguments across the spectrum of the politics of the piece are particularly well crafted to make this a play of political one. T. Ryder Smith as Pontius Pilate binds his historical figure most successfully to a recognizable contemporary power broker. As he describes the need for pulling precious resources (water) out of the land and sharing revenues of taxes with the priests and Herod, we get that chilling feeling we have again been suckered into the rationalization of economic imperialism.
Yuval Boim and Jeff Hayenga as the leaders of Jerusalem’s priestly caste give it back to him in an exciting dramatic confrontation. They and their culture will survive, outlasting Rome and all its imperial ambitions. The two embody the struggle to compromise with Rome to stay alive but at what price and make such a striking duo on stage with their elegant costumes and bloodied red hands, a twinship of snake arms and ritualized interactions.
Ismael Kanater plays Herod in one of the creepiest incarnations of this easily creepiest of characters. His drunken lechery towards his step-daughter Salomé is a hard scene to watch.
The other duo, jailors Shahar Isaac and Elan Zafir, carve out real characters with competing desires and stakes. Richard Sauder as Yeshua the Madman is a kind of symbolic homeless street person, present as a witness but powerless, whose story is also lost to history.
Lubana Al Quntar and Tamara Ilana, swathed mysteriously from head to foot, representing the silenced women of that part of the world, provide most of the singing and their voices are gorgeous. They act as Chorus punctuating the scenes, sometimes singing words but also soaring lyrically in vocalizes.
The one criticism I have of the cast is a vocal one. The style of delivery of the speech is declamatory, and many of the voices stay both loud and with little pitch variance. It becomes monotonous occasionally, hard to listen to and somewhat dangerous to produce. Some of the voices already sounded ragged and strained.
Movement Director Ami Shulman has choreographed an unfolding pageant of movement, using iconic arm gestures and making the most of a stage turntable on which the characters circle round.
Shakespeare Theatre has always produced sumptuous designs, and Salomé is no exception. Designer Susan Hilferty has given Farber a clean, spare world on which to work and costumed the characters gorgeously with elegant lines and richly drenched hues. Donald Holder lights this world with mastery and finesse, and his design at time made me gasp, it’s so beautiful.
Mark Bennett has composed a flowing score which supports the work throughout, bubbling up to take focus in the songs of especially the two women but sometimes including the whole company. There is an eerie tone that he has also devised which keeps reoccurring, indicating perhaps the impending fall of an empire or perhaps the voices of women lying under the earth.
Salomé is a magnificent, hypnotic, and quite magical work. 10.15.15
DCist, Missy Frederick – A Visually Stunning Salome. At one moment early on in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Salomé, the stage lights up in golden hues and sand appears to come cascading down from the rafters. The audience Thursday evening murmured at the effect; some even gasped. This was clearly going to be a visually stunning production.
It’s also a challenging one. Yael Farber’s reinterpretation of Salomé’s story, first alluded to in the bible (if not by name) and then famously elaborated on by Oscar Wilde, is gorgeous and inventive, but also bleak and extremely slow-paced. Despite the play clocking in at less than two hours, the action moves as if in slow motion, often set balletically to chant-like singing. It’s an effect that requires patience and investment from the audience.
But that investment is rewarded with a beautifully staged, entirely new telling of the title characters’ driving forces and circumstances. Narrated by a much older Salomé, now the “nameless woman” (an imposing Olwen Fouere), the work shows the hell Salomé was put through both before and following her momentous act of calling for the head of John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair) on a platter. It drives home the stark political motivations that eventually lead her to act; this innovative new feminist interpretation is appropriate for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, of which it is a part.
As the younger version of the title character, Nadine Malouf may not summon the same sort of gravitas as her elder counterpart, but she brings a certain beauty and inner confidence to Salomé’s struggle, most thrillingly embodied in the show’s arresting baptism scene. Painting a more cryptic figure is Choukair, whose dialogue is conducted entirely in Arabic (and sometimes translated by Yeshua the Madman (Richard Saudi). T. Ryder Smith is both menacing and pragmatic as a power-hungry Pontius Pilate; as Herod, Ismael Kanater strikes an oddly comic tone that doesn’t seem to quite fit into the production’s sensibility, though he does lend appropriate brutality to a key, disturbing scene with Salomé.
The use of flashing light, gentle falling rain, and a rotating stage are just a few staging techniques that help bring about key scenes in Salomé. The woman herself has become most iconic to modern audiences for the Dance of the Seven Veils, and while this staging of the dance is still seductive in its own way, it also emphasizes the power behind that dancing, incorporating giant curtain-like veils that stretch nearly the entirety of the stage. It’s one of the production’s most impressive visuals in a play that’s packed with them. 10.16.15
Curtain Up, Susan Davidson – Stunning and Provocative – The lights dim slowly in the auditorium setting a slow and measured pace for what is to come. Actors of multi-ethnic origins and appearance enter in a procession in what looks like slo-mo. There’s drumming in the background as a white-haired character in a peach-pink toga-like robe, listed as the Nameless Woman who is in fact Salomé, long past her youth but still sensuous and commanding, sits on a simple chair in the center of the stage. As with most of the 95-minutes that follow, the visual effect is mesmerizing.
Salomé, now premiering at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Center, is visually stunning. Director Yaël Farber, Lighting Designer Donald Holder and Scenic/Costume Designer Susan Hilferty have created an environment that is simple and yet complex. The outer ring on the stage revolves, beneath the stage is a pool of water and large swaths of cloth (seven veils) descend from the top of the theater — their colors changed by extremely imaginative lighting. The young and beautiful Salomé makes a very dramatic entrance.
As the outer rim of the stage turns, we meet the characters. Romans, clothed in flowing skirts with a hint of armored protection at their necks are forbidden from entering the Temple. They talk about the need for roads and aquaducts, a particular skill of theirs, but they do not want to shed blood to achieve their aims. The Jews, wearing leather straps around their arms (tefillin), don’t want to pay for water. Taxes are a matter of contention. And then, as if to say here is a gift from heaven, water pours from the ceiling, in cascades enhanced by superb lighting.
The Nameless Woman ( Olwen Foueré, memorably dynamic and yet unapproachable), talks almost in riddles. Her long white hair and deep, deep voice embody gravitas. The meaning of her words, like the rest of the lines or, as the program states, adaptation from the Bible by Yael Farber is hard to decipher. Because the multi-national and eclectically ethnic cast speak in Arabic, Hebrew and English, the text can be confusing, the audience is at times left somewhat quizzical.
The plot follows the story of Herod’s step-daughter Salomé, played by the very beautiful and very Middle Eastern looking Nadine Malouf who, when in the spotlight which is often, exposes more than just her feminine wiles. But the ending of this tale of Salomé differs from what we were taught in school. This Salomé has a feminist twist.
The supporting cast is fine: Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan/John the Baptist is very effective and Richard Saudek as Yeshua the Madman (who is not so crazy) stand out as they move the exposition forward. Yael Farber’s adaptation is sometimes repetitious and sometimes elliptical; words are less her forte than her tableaux vivant and visual illusions which are indeed brilliant.
Farber’s work has been well received internationally and the list of awards she has received is indeed very long. But I look forward to seeing her direction of a play that is more linear and less pretentious than this Salomé. 10.16.15
Broadway World Susan Davidson – SALOMÉ is a visually stunning world premiere that brings us deeply complex characters struggling for command and dignity in one of history’s most highly contested strips of land. Yaël Farber, the award-winning adaptor-director, returns to the Shakespeare Theatre Company after her great success MIES JULIE, which looked at Strindberg’s work through the lens of post-apartheid South Africa. With SALOMÉ she has shaped a compelling work of power and contradiction.
This production upends the traditional view of Salomé, considering her as principled and calculated rather than a monstrous harlot. Here, Salomé uses the tools she has – access, sensuality, brains – to effect change. Even within the limitations society placed on her, she sees opportunity.
The character at the core of the production is portrayed by two actors simultaneously. Salomé, who famously dances before the king and demands the head of John the Baptist, is depicted by an assured and forceful Nadine Malouf. At the same time Olwen Fouéré “begins at the end” of the tale as the Nameless Woman (in recognition that nowhere in the New Testament accounts is her name given – which the director sees as an apt metaphor for the “ways in which women were erased from the ancient scriptures”). Fouéré is our narrator and guide to this occupied territory and treacherous relationships. As the Nameless Woman, Fouéré brings a dignity and force that propels the work.
Ramzi Choukair is a memorable Iokanaan (John the Baptist), the tortured prisoner, prophet, zealot and baptizer. Iokanaan’s lines are scripted solely in Arabic, with the Nameless Woman sometimes offering translations. However, at a critical scene between Iokanaan and Salomé this language device becomes cumbersome in a moment needing heightened stakes. The international cast also features T. Ryder Smith as a Pontius Pilate fixated with taxation and aqueducts, Ismael Kanater as a vile Herod, Yuval Boim and Jeff Hayenga as local religious leaders, Richard Saudek is Yeshua the Madman, and Shahar Isaac and Elan Zafir are jailors. The cast also includes the haunting voices of singers Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana.
SALOMÉ is a highly physical show – not with extraneous motion but with a very deliberate positioning of bodies and shaping of movement. The work of Movement Director Ami Shulman helps us explore domination, vulnerability or power, all without a word uttered. In fact, we do not hear the voice of Malouf’s Salomé until halfway through the production, though her thoughts, challenges, and beliefs are clearly revealed to us throughout.
The scenic design by Susan Hilferty is spare and gorgeous, each choice delivering maximum impact. The show begins stripped bare: a few sawhorses and chairs, exposed lighting instruments, actors spotted in the wings, and at center a simple lit grate. Layered in as the production continues are elements of sand, water, metal and cloth. A turntable offers an opportunity to contrast stillness and movement. The audience palpably reacted to imaginative use a huge ladder which people continued to discuss after the play’s conclusion. Hilferty, who earned Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle awards for the costume design of WICKED, also designed SALOMÉ’s costumes. The wardrobe is in the colors of soil and sand as if they come from the earth itself. The design reveals the flesh and muscle of bodies both vulnerable and powerful. Tony Award-winning lighting designer Donald Holder’s work here brings us from painterly tableaux to a dank underground prison, drawing us in each time to what is essential. Composer and Sound Designer Mark Bennett’s ambient music is another effective addition to the whole.
Because The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “resident playwright” penned his work 400 years ago it is highly unusual for the company to present world premiere productions, although several new adaptations or translations of classical works have been featured throughout the years. For the Women’s Voices Theater Festival the company makes a bold departure by featuring a world premiere production influenced by classical texts (including the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Oscar Wilde’s play, and ancient Arabic, Hebraic, and Babylonian texts). Rather than a playwright working in isolation on the script, the internationally acclaimed Farber worked with actors and designers to devise the play.
The Women’s Voices Theater Festival was designed to highlight the scope of new plays written by women, but there is no requirement that the work address a woman’s perspective or subject, yet Farber’s SALOMÉ most certainly does, giving voice to a powerful female character. “I’m interested in telling a story that awakens the feminine narrative, that asks the questions: At what point do we own the possibility of political action? And why is feminine political agency so often written out?” states Farber.
SALOMÉ is an affecting production that is exquisitely beautiful to watch even as it challenges and provokes. 10.17.15
MD Theatre Guide, Kaley Beins – “Lord, the fire is now in the hands of a woman!” What if one of the most well known biblical tales only told half the story? “You don’t remember me—the girl you left for dead.” What if one of history’s heroines was purposefully erased? In Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) Salomé, award-winning South African adaptor and director Yaël Farber reinterprets Oscar Wilde’s tragedy to showcase the immense strength of the female spirit.
STC’s Salomé explores the story of Salomé (Nadine Malouf), the biblical dancer and presumed stepdaughter of Herod (Ismael Kanater) who asked for John the Baptist, or Iokanaan’s (Ramzi Choukair) head on a platter. Farber inverts the usual commentary on Salomé’s cruelty by exploring her action as one of rebellion. The play takes place in flashbacks of Salomé’s fateful request and the events that led to it. As Salomé and the Nameless Woman (Olwen Fouéré) come together onstage to tell their story, they combine past, present, and future into a transformative commentary on colonization, resistance, and the often overlooked power of women to change the course of history.
The caliber of acting is visible from the second the performers walk onstage. They move in slow motion, yet maintain a deliberate energy while remaining exactly in sync with one another. Beginning the narrative, Fouréré’s voice echoed from the stage into the house, and I got chills. Every decision the actors and director made—Yeshua the Madman’s (Richard Saudek) incredible physicality, Pontius Pilate’s (T. Ryder Smith) unyielding arrogance, and Malouf’s raw, breathtaking power in her nudity—revitalized the show, rendering Salomé a continuous torrent of action and beauty.
In addition to the extraordinary acting, Salomé’s design was utterly breathtaking. Susan Hilferty, the Scenic and Costume Designer, brought life to the piece through exceptionally innovative staging and unobtrusive, yet purposeful costumes. Sand rained down from the catwalk, fabric billowed from the flies, and the circular stage rotated. In addition to the staging, Donald Holder’s haunting light design added both physical and theoretical depth to the show. He used the spots to play with silhouettes and shadow as well as the water motif, thereby drawing the audience further into the mystery of Salomé’s story.
From its relentless risk-taking to its incorporation of Arabic and Hebraic texts, STC’s Salomé was the most captivating production I’ve ever seen. Do not miss it.10.18.15
Communities Digital News, Malcolm Barnes – A chilling, erotic Biblical meditation. The Shakespeare Theater Company’s current production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” transports you to a mystical period in Biblical antiquity where time seems to stand still. From the production’s opening slow march of players who emerge from the sparse grey trappings arrayed stage left, director Yael Farber creates a mesmerizing séance of voices and images that literally transports you to the inner sanctuary of a holy yet terrifying erotic palace of bondage and desire.
A rich tapestry of language delivered by this production’s international ensemble is the ultimate stylistic signature of native South African director Farber. In her feminist reinterpretation and reworking of Wilde’s 1896 drama she focuses even more closely on the cold and calculating step-daughter of King Herod Antipas, who plots the death of John the Baptist (Iokanaan in this drama) after he rejects her lascivious desires.
“I’m interested in telling a story that awakens the feminine narrative that asks the questions: At what point do we own the possibility of political action? And why is feminine political agency so often written out?” observes Farber, a multiple-award-winning director and playwright, whose adaptation and direction of the Shakespeare Theatre’s equally sensuous “Mies Julie” last season — based on Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” — earned her a Helen Hayes Award nomination for outstanding Visiting Production.
“After witnessing how audiences were riveted by “Mies Julie,” I knew that the Company had to find an opportunity for Yael to create a production in Washington,” notes STC Artistic Director Michael Khan. “Salome promises to be another powerful theatrical experience, and as one of the originating theaters of thaw Women’s Voices Theater Festival, we are exceptionally proud that both Yael’s and Salome’s voices are being heard on our stage at this time.”
Farber’s “Salomé” certainly does deliver the goods in this production.
“Time runs dry,” says the voice of the Nameless Woman, a character portrayed by Irish visual artist Olwen Fouéré in a stark, grey contrast to the black flowing mane of Salomé. Fouéré’s monologues give voice to Salomé’s silent moments of torment and suffering in the inner sanctum of the imperial and religious powers, who themselves are unable to grasp Salomé’s personal and erotic power.
For all the feminist undercurrents that set the tone for this reimagined “Salomé,” however, it is Ramzi Choukair’s stunning and chilling portrayal of Iokanaan that animates this production’s core. His foreign language monologues (this production adds Arabic and Hebrew to the English), instantly interpreted by Yeshua the Madman (Richard Saudek), cast an apocalyptic pall over the Biblical story line that we thought we knew so well until heard in this radical adaptation of the original.
Choukair’s Iokanaan charges into the narrative fully formed as a raving, mad prophet clad only in a loincloth. He bares his soul to the powers that be and, in a scene not in Wilde’s original, confronts the imperial presence of Pontius Pilate, played here with unflinching directness by T. Ryder Smith. As a foil to the dithering Herod, Smith portrays Pilate as a calculating Roman general and governor who pits the interests of the Sanhedrin priests – the keepers of the ancient, sacred Hebrew codes and texts – against the voices of the populist Jewish rabble, an ancient proletariat that threatens the delicate balance of power between Imperial Rome and its restive province.
“A colonized people should learn that they are fortunate to keep their God alive,” says Pilate in a warning to these religious and political leaders who, along with the people, are on the verge of rebelling against the Roman tax burden.
An equally compelling element of this production is its constantly-revolving circular set. From a stark, grey beginning, it transforms seamlessly through a series of scene changes that move from Herod’s court to reveal Iokannan’s cistern-dungeon and the underground prison cells where Salomé visits the prophet. It’s a descent into a prison hell that eventually seals both characters’ fates, with Salomé herself ultimately facing the loss her all of her the worldly trappings and her life as well.
Warning – this visceral performance includes full frontal nudity and water purification scenes that will remind at least some movie fans of Jennifer Beals’ “Flashdance” but without the leotards. But Nadine Malouf’s sensually riveting performance as the maddened Salomé, whose full powers are finally unleashed as she performs her legendary and provocative Dance of the Seven Veils sets a sensational new theatrical standard.
She pulls all the visual element of theatrical craftsmanship together as her Salomé weaves a sexually charged spell amidst the set’s royal but earthy backdrop, as highlighted by ceiling to floor veils that prophecy the inevitable yet horrific beheading of Iokanaan.
The ensemble cast does not have a single weak link in this seamless portrayal of royal moral decay and debauchery. From the haunting vocals of singers Tamar Ilana and Lubana Al Quntar, whose music and lyrics dramatically transition one scene to the next; to the evil presence of Ismael Kanater’s King Herod; to the key supporting roles of Elan Zafir and Shahar Isaac who portray devious jail keepers Abaddon and Bar Giora. All reflect the worst of an ancient civilization where “Everyone is for sale,” perhaps foreshadowing our own times in the process. 10.20.15
Washington City Paper, Rebecca J. Ritzel – Yaël Farber’s retelling adds nuance and compelling storytelling to the classic play. If the Women’s Voices Theater Festival has demonstrated anything thus far, at least judging by the offerings at D.C.’s largest theaters, it’s that hiring a lady playwright does not guarantee staging a compelling, female-centric story.
For Woolly Mammoth, Sheila Callaghan contributed a sophomoric farce about an entitled trust-fund millennial and three fucked-up women in his life (Women Laughing Alone with Salad). At Signature, lyricist Julia Jordan teamed with composer Adam Gwon to turn an extant play into a musical about a guy trying to win a baking contest (Cake Off). And at Arena Stage, local playwright Karen Zacarías is sending up the puffy-gowned, goopy-mascara world of telenova mistresses in her new comedy, Destiny of Desire.
There’s nothing wrong with all this entertaining fare, but it seems much more in the spirit of this festival for theaters to stage plays that have something to say about the female experience. Be grateful then, that the Shakespeare Theatre, a venue devoted to the male-dominated cannon, is premiering playwright and director Yaël Farber’s Salomé as adapted from the scriptures, historical sources, and Oscar Wilde’s play.
Farber, a South African director whose father is of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, has built an international career around recontextualizing the classics. Her work was last seen here two years ago when Shakespeare hosted her touring production of August Strindberg’s Mies Julie, set in post-Apartheid South Africa. For Salomé, Farber assembled an international cast, including many actors of Middle Eastern descent.
In the New Testament gospels, the story about the girl who dances before Herod—and so pleases the ruler of Judea that he offers Salomé anything she wishes—gets just 15 verses. She’s named not in the scriptures but by the historian Josephus; the seven veils were Wilde’s idea, and made infamous in Richard Strauss’ opera.
Neither ancient source provides a reason for her request (the head of John the Baptist on a platter), but according to scriptures, the idea came from Salomé’s mother. Contemporary readers looking at these texts—which we must remember have been patched together and translated by 20 centuries’ worth of men—are left to assume Salomé was a slut and her mother, Herod’s wife, was a vindictive bitch. That’s not the case in Farber’s play, which positions the story in a broader historical context. The resulting hypnotic 90-minute theater piece should now appeal to anyone with an interest in early Christianity and Hebrew history, and all who love seeing a fascinating story unfold onstage in unexpected ways.
The set at the Lansburgh Theatre is deceptively bare. The back of the theater is painted black, with exposed pipework and masonry. When the cast processes in, it’s with great solemnity. Movement and music are crucial to the show’s ethos; two singers vocalize nearly the entire time, chanting over an effective drone. Salomé herself is depicted by two actors: Nadine Malouf as Herod’s gamine stepdaughter and Olwen Fouéré as a reflective older woman, who delivers much of the narration.
As the cast reenacts scenes from scripture, sand pours from the ceiling, veils fall from the catwalks, and trap doors open to reveal the River Jordan. (Tony winner Donald Holder did the stunning lighting; Susan Hilferty is credited with the scenic and costume design.) By show’s end, audiences are entirely sucked in, as if huddling beneath a tent to escape a desert sandstorm.
The world of first-century Hebrews is, evidently, a perilous one. Their inhospitable holy land is occupied by tax-and-starve Romans, and for women, the situation is far worse. So what if Salomé—Salomé the seductress—may have been dancing for much more than a Nazarite head? In Farber’s retelling, her striptease starts a revolution, one that required discarding oppressors and finding salvation. So convincing is the theatermaking in Salomé, you may leave converting into thinking that while well behaved women rarely make history, it takes a revisionist woman playwright and director to set history straight. 10.23.15
Shakespeareances.com, Eric Minton– A Spark of Revolution in a Theatrical Baptism. Never before have I received a letter from a theater preparing us for the play we were about to see. The email, with the subject line of “Before you attend Salomé,” came from Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC), introducing us to the piece he chose to not only open the company’s 2015-2016 season, but also to serve as STC’s entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. That festival, involving theaters throughout the metropolitan Washington, D.C.–area, features some 50 premieres by women playwrights along with productions directed by women.
Salomé is kind of both. The production is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s quirky but scandalous one-act piece, written in 1891, published in French in 1893 and debuted in Paris in 1896 (an 1892 London premiere was preempted by censors during rehearsals). The adapter and director is Yaël Farber, and Wilde’s presence in the new version is scant as Farber draws on ancient Hebrew (Biblical) and Babylonian texts for purposes both thematic and contextual. Most significantly, she shifts the perspective to that of the title character and puts the play’s political and religious subtexts front and center.
Thus did Kahn write STC subscribers—the kind of theater patrons who clap enthusiastically when the curtain rises on a gorgeously realistic set for Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest—to warn them that this is not your typical Wilde time in the theater. “You should come to the theater expecting a few things,” he writes: In summary, “Don’t be surprised or alarmed if you see…juxtapositions of nudity, eroticism, spirituality, and politics in this production.” Oh, and a multilingual script, too.
Kahn first encountered Farber when he saw Mies Julie, her adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie set in post-Apartheid South Africa. “I was captivated and excited, and I admired Yaël’s ability to transform classical texts to speak to the most pressing issues of our time,” Kahn says in his letter. He brought Mies Julie to STC in 2013 and began discussing Salomé with Farber. It is a fitting entry for the Women’s Voices Festival, especially as there are not many female authors in the classics canon. Certainly, STC could have mounted yet another production of The Rover or brought to light some other Aphra Behn play (and frankly, among playwrights, William Shakespeare speaks for women as well as many women do, and Kahn could have ridden the tide of all-female productions for any one of Shakespeare’s plays). However, reconfiguring such a sex symbol as Salomé—Herod’s stepdaughter who does the Dance of the Seven Veils and afterward orders the beheading of John the Baptist—into both a victim of Roman-occupied Judea’s misogynist society and a spark of revolution is the kind of woman’s perspective the festival was meant to surface.
To be sure, Farber’s Salomé is not a grand night of theater entertainment. It is heavy lifting, both intellectually and emotionally. It also is visually stunning, so let’s start there. Scenic and Costume Designer Susan Hilferty uses what is seemingly a bare set, including what looks like the black-brick back wall of the theater. A table made of a ladder crosses the back of the stage with chairs lined up behind it, and on both sides are sawhorses serving as tables holding serving bowls and prayer shawls. These pieces of furniture are moved into various configurations to create everything from prisons to altars. A grate lies across the front of the stage, and this serves as the cell where Iokanaan (John the Baptist) is imprisoned. A revolving track circles the center of the stage, which sets in motion at points of transition in the play. Donald Holder’s lighting design with its meticulous use of spots, shadows, and highlights is also integral to the play’s setting.
But the real scene-setter is the person listed second, after Adaptor/Director Farber, on the playbill’s artistic team list: Ami Shulman, movement director. The production is as much an interpretive dance as it is a theatrical drama. The production opens with the entire cast entering the stage in slow, measured steps (at the end, too, the entire cast, after bowing as an ensemble, depart the stage in the same manner, visually decreeing there will be no curtain call—what’s done is done). How characters move is integral to their depictions, from the gruffly aggressive cop-like Pontius Pilate (T. Ryder Smith), who can’t get any answers about what happened “that night,” to the Jewish high priests, Caiaphas (Yuval Boim) and Annas (Jeff Hayenga), who move with studied religious pomposity and stand like statues in prayer. The most arresting moment of the production comes when Salomé descends into Iokanaan’s cell. As he beckons her, other cast members move the ladder behind her, and her ascent of the ladder eventually becomes, in one seamless motion, a descent accomplished by the cast repositioning the ladder as she repositions herself and Holder repositions the stage lighting. It’s a “how did they do that?” moment, yet it serves to heighten the dramatic tension.
Two actresses play the title character. Nadine Malouf is the young Salomé, the one who acts out the events of the night when she becomes fascinated by Iokanaan, is baptized by him, and, upon acquiescing to dance for her father as long as he swore to grant any wish she asked, beheads the prophet. Olwen Fouéré plays the woman in her older years, tracked down after escaping to the desert and living there countless years. She refers to herself as the Nameless Woman—she has a real name, she says, and it’s not Salomé, but she never reveals it. This is derived from the Gospels, which don’t name her. Fouéré’s Nameless Woman serves as narrator and chorus, but also is a character whom Pilate questions and tortures trying to get to the bottom of the incident that sparked rebellion. “Pain whispers to me like an old friend,” she says. This Salomé’s timeline is convoluted. It starts with the Nameless Woman and jumps back and forth across events, from the murder of Iokanaan over the story of Jesus to the Jewish revolt against Roman rule 30 years later.
The Dance of the Seven Veils is Wilde’s creation (at least the name is), and nothing in the script suggests that it is a striptease act, but Wilde may have intended it to be so (the play’s banning in England was officially due to its biblical subject matter). It certainly since has become associated with disrobing. However, in this production, the dance is cleverly allegorical, a display of unifying factions rather than shedding pieces of clothing. Salomé’s disrobing comes in the baptism scene as Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair), dressed only in a loincloth, leads her through seven metaphorical gates—each gate requiring the shedding of a piece of clothing—to the final baptism of water. It’s a prolonged, ritualistic incantation that, like so many religious ceremonies across cultures, combines the erotic with the esoteric.
There is much contextual history at play in Farber’s presentation. Iokanaan was more than a forerunner of Jesus; he was a revolutionary whose baptism ritual was a direct challenge to Jewish temple practices but whose zealotry was aimed at restoring the Hebrew state. Rather than killing him and thereby creating a martyr, Herod imprisoned and tortured him as a means to suppress his nationalist movement. Farber, a native of South Africa, likens this history to that of Nelson Mandela. Iokanaan’s death would ignite the rebellion, and that is the motive for this Salomé’s actions (Wilde’s Salomé, by contrast, is driven by suppressed sexual desire to establish her own sense of power over the male figureheads represented by her stepfather and Iokanaan).
Despite this deeply personal and gender-centric depiction of the Salomé story, Farber’s adaptation doesn’t take clear sides. The high priests may be pompous and they may be hypocrites, but they make inflammatory demands on the Roman authorities, too, and in history such demands fueled the Jewish uprising. Pilate on the surface is clearly a cruel authoritarian, but he has common sense political judgment, and we can empathize with his frustration trying to understand the peoples of Palestine. Iokanaan may be a man of God and a victim of colonial rule, but he seems dangerous on a psychological, messianic level. The idea that our ideals and our fates often are twains that never mesh is spoken by one of Herod’s guards, a Hebrew willing to participate in the torturing of Iokanaan on behalf of his Roman oppressors because “We do not belong to ourselves.”
“As you can see, Yaël is a director who challenges audiences,” Kahn writes in his letter to subscribers. “She reconnects us with the theater’s most ancient traditions: as ritual, as tribunal, as an act of collective testimonial.” That he would even see the need for sending such a letter speaks to the crossroads at which the Shakespeare Theatre Company finds itself. It needs to grow new audiences, but it’s old audience still pays the bills. And so Kahn signs off with this wish: “I hope to see you in our theaters again soon.” The line’s grammatical construction hints that he had already conceded the box office take on Salomé.
However, giving us this adaptation of Salomé and making it the first production of the subscriber season boldly announces a company that is not ready to roll over completely to the comfortable tastes of its long-established patronage while an ever-more-vibrant D.C. theater scene leaves STC floundering in the dust of tradition. Additionally, STC’s Shakespeare productions last season generally eschewed the conceptual esthetes that had become its norm for a more text-centric delivery. I can’t predict what the ultimate financial fallout might be for the company, but I know that we ended up renewing our STC subscription in the middle of last season after originally determining not to. After this first outing of the 2015-2016 season, we intend to renew again next year. 11.2.15
Talkin’ Broadway, Susan Berlin – The purpose of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, now underway in Washington, is not only to showcase the writing of female playwrights but also to reveal the voices of women who have been silenced, or at least marginalized. Salomé, the new work by Yaël Farber at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, is exactly what the festival was designed to do.
Most of what people know about Salomé, stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, comes from Oscar Wilde’s play and Richard Strauss’s operatic adaptation; she is not even named in the gospels. She is usually considered a vengeful woman who lusts for the imprisoned John the Baptist and, after he scorns her, takes her revenge by demanding the prophet’s head on a platter. Farber reframes the issue: what if Salomé’s motive was not sexual or even personal, but political?
Working from the works of Roman historians and ancient sources in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Farber and her company have created a thought-provoking dramatic work that raises uncomfortable questions about colonialism, occupation, privilege, and who controls the historical narrative.
Salomé (Nadine Malouf) presents her experiences as they happen, while her older self—the Nameless Woman (Olwen Fouéré)—offers the perspective of distance. Farber’s feat of storytelling, created collaboratively (in several languages) with her cast members, depicts Judea in the first century C.E. as ripe for an uprising against the Roman occupiers. Herod (Ismael Kanater) and the priests of the Temple have to placate the Roman overseer Pontius Pilate (T. Ryder Smith). Meanwhile, the leaders ignore the needs of the Judean population, allowing the agitator Iokanaan, or John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair), to preach about freedom and release in this world as well as the next. The authorities don’t want to create a martyr, so they are determined to keep Iokanaan alive, if isolated.
In Farber’s vision, Salomé is fascinated by the sound of Iokanaan’s praying in a foreign language (Choukair performs his role in Arabic, with Fouéré providing unobtrusive translation) and forces his prison guards to allow her to visit him. Their interaction is built on mutual respect rather than manipulation or seduction as a weapon.
The two lead women dominate the stage throughout the 90-minute performance and Choukair is a magnetic presence. All the members of the company, including singers Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana, bring utter commitment to the work, immersing themselves deeply in both the words and the ideas that remain unspoken.
The production also looks beautiful, with Susan Hilferty’s simple yet all-encompassing scenic design and evocative costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting design, which includes hand-held follow spots. 10.23.15
Theatre Bloom, Diane Wilshere – Salomé…seductress? Salomé…femme fatale? Salomé…revolutionary heroine? South African Playwright and director Yaël Farber posits how a nameless young woman mentioned briefly in the Bible as the catalyst for the death of John the Baptist became the femme fatale of Oscar Wilde’s version of the story. By examining the biblical narrative in the context of the conquest of Judea by the Romans, Farber presents a provocative reimagining of this woman’s place in history. The result is a fascinating if flawed look at the oppression of feminine narratives in history and literature.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company, as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is presenting the world premiere production of Yaël Farber’s Salomé. Farber has chosen to include in her source material ancient Arabic, Hebraic, and Babylonian texts as well as other historical works focused on the time of the Roman occupation. As such she has crafted a more political story than that presented in either the Bible or by adaptors of the tale in the late 19th and early 20th century. Farber directs her work with some provocation. Certain images may induce thoughts of torture and abuse from news reports from our own time. Movement created by Ami Shulman removes the sexuality from Salomé’s climatic act yet still provides a very strong moment in the play.
Set and Costume Designer Susan Hilferty has created a stark set consisting mainly of chairs, crates, and other simple pieces that can be configured by the cast to represent different locales. Hilferty’s earth-toned costumes evoke a period feel tying us to the land under conquest. Lighting Designer Donald Holder compliments Hilferty’s work creating a harsh and oppressive landscape.
The most beautiful aspect of this production is the music created by Composer Mark Bennett. Beautifully sung by Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana, the score highlights the poignancy and bravery of Salomé’s deeds.
The story is narrated by the Nameless Woman (Olwen Fouèré), and unfolds primarily in reverse. Fouèré is the older Salomé who has weathered the consequences of her actions. The story she relates begins in the aftermath of Salomé’s deed and the story is then unveiled in a languorous manner. The flaw is that the pace of the production slows to such a point that the audience may begin to wonder when they will get to witness the main event. The production’s running time is only 1 hour and 40 minutes, yet a judicious trim in the opening scenes would be welcome.
How does Salomé (Nadine Malouf) fit into this political narrative? She is the Princess of Judea, trapped into an existence in which she is also not mistress of her own destiny. Instead of the sexually charged seducer of Oscar Wilde, Farber’s Salomé is a woman victimized by her stepfather Herod’s incestuous advances. Salomé’s encounter with Jokanaan is a transformative one leading to her decision to ask for Jokanaan’s execution not out of frustrated lust or revenge. It is a political act that will spark the attempt to overthrow the Roman occupation.
One of the most provocative decisions by Farber as a playwright is to have Jokanaan (Ramzi Choukair) be the only character that does not speak English. This separates the Baptist from those who have acquiesced to Rome in exchange for the few freedoms of limited home rule and worship that Rome will permit. Jokanaan is not tamed by Rome; he is separate yet free in his manner of speech, his manner of dress, and most important his incitements to revolution.
Uniformly the performances from the small ensemble of actors are good. T. Ryder Smith as Pilate is a man in command who genuinely believes his actions are for the good of the people he oppresses. Yuval Boim’s Ismael Kanater’s Herod is appropriately loathsome. He is occasionally difficult to understand as his character’s frequently drunken state causes him to slur his words. Ramzi Choukair is a mesmerizing figure as the historical John the Baptist would have been. He is both fanatic and charismatic making quite a compelling performance.
Olwen Fouèré and Nadine Malouf who share the title role together create a whole woman. Malouf must evolve Salomé from despairing oppressed princess to inspired political player. Fouèré has the wisdom of time in her narrative. Together they equal a powerful woman.
Yaël Farber’s Salomé is a challenging play. It forces the audience to think about the suppression of women’s voices throughout historical narratives. From the nameless woman of the Bible to Oscar Wilde’s cold-hearted femme fatale the real Salomé has disappeared into the sands of time. Farber creates a different narrative that will make thoughtful audiences examine another possibility. Salomé…the catalyst of revolution. 10.14.15
The Weekly Standard, David Bahr – This Salomé Needs Salvaging. In 1758, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a chastising letter to his former colleague (and editor of the Encyclopédie) Jean le Rond d’Alembert. Rousseau’s criticism centered on d’Alembert’s proposal for the establishment of a theater in Geneva, whose “Lacedaemonian” culture, he lamented, lacked the “urbanity of Athens.” D’Alembert’s essay drew a connection, which Rousseau took up in his response, between the arts and mores. But where d’Alembert considered the potential consequence of this entertainment as nothing more than an increase in the “fineness of tact” and “delicacy of sentiment,” Rousseau saw an impending degradation of the virtues that held together the public and private sphere of that small city.
Today, raising this Rousseauian consideration is, as Allan Bloom noted, “most naturally viewed by us with suspicion as arising from illiberal interest of party or sect.” This is both too true and too bad, especially when a play like Yaël Farber’s Salomé comes to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, located in my very own polis of Washington, D.C.
When I heard an adaptation of Salomé was in the works, I decided to do a little prep-work, which included reading and listening to Salomé-related sources: Wilde, Matthew and Mark, Josephus, Strauss, etc. This all, however, turned out to be rather unnecessary, since adapter and director Farber, “drawn to [the] silence” of a woman she considers a “symbol upon whom all our fears and longings have been imposed” freely constructed her own Salomé from different narrative threads. (I left the show thinking that a better title for the play might have been Farber or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Imposing my Fears and Longings on Salomé.) Since this all leaves me exposed to charge that I am imposing my very own fears and longings on Farber, it is best to evaluate the production based on her own stated aims: “I want to create the possibility that this woman, living under an occupying regime, came to a deep understanding of her selfhood, one that allowed her to drive forward a political agenda. I hope this speaks to contemporary situations where people are made to feel powerless, without control over their own bodies, lacking political power.”
Farber’s Salomé (FS) lives under, what we are reminded time and again is an “occupying regime.” The “occupier” we all know was the Roman Empire, making it hard to understand why the director chooses to employ this loaded designation. After a few lines on “self-determination,” a Iokanaan (John the Baptist) who speaks only in Arabic and promises “liberation,” it becomes impossible to shake the sensation that FS is the author’s crude take on the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
FS’s perversity lies in the role-reversal trope Farber uses to get her message—which is as mystifying as the historical Salomé—across. In her retelling (actually, inventing), FS is cast as the “revolutionary agent” who, after spending the night with Iokanaan becomes convinced that his death, which will be interpreted as a sort of martyrdom for the people, is of greater benefit to the cause than his continued existence on earth. Just so the audience does not miss this charming calculus, we watch the Hebrew (read: Palestinian) guards converse before executing the deed: “How can I kill my brother?” Response: “Do it. Light the fire of the revolution.” So what’s the lesson? Give up your body in the fight against the so-called “occupier.” How so? Suicide bombings? Stabbings? Is this the profound take-away?
And here let’s invite Rousseau back into the conversation. If face to face with Farber, he might have asked her if she considered whether the effect of her “message” through the use of loaded words and imagery (torture, full frontal nudity) was intended to purify the mores of the audience, or was a sad exercise in harmful provocation.
The Shakespeare Theater Company does so much right that disappointments like this happen infrequently. So much the better for the soul of Washingtonians. 10.15.15
Washington Jewish Week , Lisa Traiger – The ancient tale of Salome, with new life. In literature, art and history, we’ve come to know Salome, the New Testament princess, daughter of Herod, as a sensuous and lustful femme fatale. In the Christian text, she is nameless, but comes down to us in history through Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who documented a version of her then — and still — shocking demand to behead John the Baptist.
Through the ages artists have depicted her on canvas, in sculpture, in drama and opera as a seductress who uses her sexuality to gain advantage. A new vision of Salome, one with feminist and political ramifications, particularly where the Middle East conflict is concerned, is on stage through Nov. 8 in a world premiere production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, another installment in the visionary Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
South African-born international director Yael Farber has forced new life into this ancient tale. She doesn’t ignore the blood lust that has made it attractive fodder, whether for playwright Oscar Wilde or opera composer Richard Strauss, among others. But she rethinks nearly everything about the lurid tale, overturning the perspective of its traditional point of view.
Farber noted in the program that in biblical accounts, Salome is a woman with no name. Here, she not only gives the woman a name, but also a voice. The tale is told by an older Salome looking back on that singular episode in her life as a young, virginal princess, beholden to her lascivious stepfather.
The Shakespeare’s Lansburgh stage is nearly bare to start, its back wall and wings visible, and at first a few roughhewn furnishings — a lengthy banquet table and some chairs — greet the audience as the actors stand attentively off to the side in this Salome. The period costumes — leather-like breastplates for soldiers, rich caftans for the Roman overseer, elaborate head coverings and tallis-like shawls, phylactery-like leather arm bindings for the Jewish high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, tattered garments for the Nameless Woman and a provocative breast plate and necklace for Salome — bring color and movement to the sparseness of the gaping black stage. Set and costume designer Susan Hilferty (known for her glamorous work on Broadway’s Wicked) and lighting designer Donald Holder symbiotically fashion this ancient and contentious world using old fashioned theatrical techniques — voluminous swathes of cloth, simple wood set pieces, trap doors, pools of water, stage floor turntables, falling sand and rain — thankfully avoiding the overused tendency to trick up new productions with video and lighting techniques.
Farber reappropriates the character as a woman with her own mindset and experiences, and Salome becomes an icon anew, fit for contemporary feminists. Historically, as we know from Josephus — born Joseph ben Mattityahu — Salome was a member of Herod’s court. Her mother, Herodias, divorced, then married her first-husband’s brother, which was an affront to many of the more zealous Hebrews of the time. An ascetic zealot, Iokanaan haMatpil, or John the Baptist, condemned Herod, who imprisoned him in a desert cistern in Machaerus, overlooking the Dead Sea. Salome is enticed by John’s voice. When called to dance before the court, Salome exacts a drunken promise from her stepfather for whatever she wishes. Her infamous demand: the head of John the Baptist delivered on a silver charger.
In Farber’s Salome, this is no longer just a story of sex, incest, blood lust and exacting revenge, but one of warring political forces. There are the priests of the Jewish temple, the tax collector, the Roman overlord, each asserting their own measures of interest and levels of power, to reap their monetary reward: taxes from their people. John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair) is part prophet, part rebel — the outsider — imprisoned but kept alive, Herod believes, because otherwise a Jewish insurrection would crush the status quo.
But most interesting and challenging is Farber’s use of Hebrew and Arabic texts from the Bible and other sources, including ancient Sumerian songs to the goddess Ishtar and the Song of Songs from the Torah.
She metes out these passages and multilingual phrases with a fully political purpose. John the Baptist, the revolutionary, speaks Arabic, while the Temple Jews and others call on snatches of Hebrew. Young Salome doesn’t speak at all. Barefoot, her mane of black hair wild, her eyes intense, she is not the actor in much of the drama until her moment at court — her dance (and, yes, though the seven veils aren’t historically accurate, they have come to us artistically, and Farber with Hilferty heighten the drama with exquisite staging).
Shocking for some may be the full nudity in an exquisitely beautiful scene where John recites the Song of Songs in Arabic as Salome is de-robed, loosed from her bindings. The poetry of the Arabic and English heard side by side and the baring of Salome’s body have ramifications for her female power and sexuality that enliven the multivalent dialogues the play is wrestling with. Equally as discomfiting for others may be the inferences Farber makes in equating this ancient Roman-Hebrew conflict with the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When this was booked more than a year earlier, no one could have predicted the current unrest on the streets of Jerusalem, so needless to say, these elements will strike a sensitive nerve.
But Farber has in ways both large and small collected texts, ideas, songs, music, poetry and narratives across cultures and millennia to tell a story that until the 20th century has little been told as the woman’s story. With Olwen Fourere — her gray hair flowing, her powerful delivery hair-raising — as the Nameless Woman, an older Salome, countering Nadine Malouf’s fearless young Salome. These two leading women assert their strength to inveigh the singular story of Salome.
Finding the layers, the recesses, the poetry immersed in Farber’s new vision of Salome for the 21st century is as much a psycho-emotional excavation of the terrain of mind, body and spirit. For the open-minded, adventurous viewer, this is the play to see this fall.
The Washington Blade Patrick Folliard – A fresh look at Salome. With “Salomé,” adapter/director Yaël Farber turns the biblical tale on its head. While Farber uses Oscar Wilde’s then-scandalous 1883 “Salomé” as the premise — Herod’s stepdaughter Salomé demands the head of Iokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils — her one-act now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is otherwise something entirely new. Rather than cast Salomé as a vengeful femme fatale, Farber re-imagines her as an agent of revolution. The action unfolds backwards. It “begins at the end” insists narrator Nameless Woman (fiercely played Olwen Fouéré), the older Salomé and an embodiment of unnamed women from the past. She sets the scene in Roman-ruled Jerusalem where Pontius Pilate is top dog. He’s focused — in no particular order — on collecting taxes, building aqueducts and keeping the populace at heel. Lesser powers include the debauched Herod (Ismael Kanater) and the Sanhedrin (played with perfect posture by Yuval Boim and Jeff Hayenga) who maintain the Hebrews’ religious tradition and collect Temple tax.
Unsurprisingly there’s a whiff of insurrection in the air. The people are overburdened by the occupation and looking for a messiah. Enter Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair), a baptizer spreading ideas of rebellion and insurrection. His lines are delivered exclusively in Arabic (his words are translated by the ever present Nameless Woman and Yeshua the Madman played by Ricahrd Saudek). As Nameless Woman moves the story back in time, the younger Salomé (the excellent Nadine Malouf) sits mutely, hooded and bound to a chair. By instigating the killing of Iokannan, she has lifted the radical zealot to martyr status, exactly what Pilate didn’t want. Moving further back to a fortress on the edge of the Dead Sea where Iokannan is held captive in an underground cistern, Malouf’s Salomé comes to life. Curious and determined, she uses her smarts and sensuality to persuade the jailors (Shahar Isaac and Elan Zafir) to allow her to descend a long wooden ladder to the prisoner’s damp cell. There, the heavily bearded Iokannan clad in his signature scratchy loincloth, baptizes the young woman. Reborn through water, Salomé is determined to defy her abuser and the powers that be. It’s both a pivotal spiritual and political moment for her.
Lyrical, visually striking and meticulously staged, “Salomé” is a sensory and audible pleasure as well as a world premiere production and STC’s entry in the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Composer and sound designer Mark Bennett’s ambient music sets the mood with drumming and tolling and the keening and operatic from cast members Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana. Susan Hilgerty’s set morphs from a bare stage littered with straight back chairs and long sawhorse tables to an unfamiliar place of varied elements like falling sand, billowing veil-like curtains and water. Lit evocatively by Donald Holder, the set adapts itself to many moods and locales. Under Ami Shulman’s movement direction, the graceful 12-person cast moves slowly, almost trancelike, or they are very still on the sometimes rotating stage. And while the movement is deliberate and almost sluggish, the production never drags. Farber’s Salomé certainly isn’t Hollywood, so don’t go expecting to see mantrap enticing holy man with a well-choreographed strip tease á la Rita Hayworth in the big screen version. Though still sexually charged, this is more about women’s voices, self-determination and political uprising. 10.22.15
MetroWeekly, Kate Wingfield – Naked and Afraid – A high-concept interpretation, almost to the point of being performance art, Yael Farber’s adaptation of the biblical story of Salomé is a dream-like riff that mixes the historical, the metaphorical and the speculative. It is an uncompromisingly earnest reflection on the intersection between this woman’s embodiment, literal and otherwise, of personal activism and the oppression of herself and her people.
It is also, truth be told, the kind of theater that turns people off.
Between the leaden tone and the slow-motion movements of the ensemble forming themselves into tableaux, there will be many an eye roll. Throw in the accusatory narrator sitting with legs feminist-akimbo, the effete pair of Jewish high priests striking poses, and Pontius Pilate (in a variation on Hellraiser’s maxi-skirt) delivering historical expository text-book style, and feet will begin to shuffle.
And for those with a tendency to giggle in church (or synagogue), there is the very real danger of an evening of marathon suppression. Not only do many of the techniques here beg to be mentally spoofed, Yeshua the Madman is painfully reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Patsy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
But — and it’s a big but — there are also the extraordinary, and at times exquisitely mournful, voices of Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana, whose singing invites the mind to wander and reflect on Farber’s themes. There are often beautiful moments, when movement director Ami Shulman gives the actors hauntingly exotic shapes and designs. There is scenic designer Susan Hilferty’s highly effective and thoughtful use of sand, water and a circulating stage, which combines with Donald Holder’s gloomy lighting to symbolize the overlap between ritual and reality. And there is the visually arresting figure of Salomé, played with tremendous physical competence and a feverishly searching energy by Nadine Malouf, as she embodies Farber’s concept of a woman politicized and political, terrorized and yet capable of bringing terror.
The mood and place created by all of these elements, if you are open to them, can lead to interesting contemplations: how history has shaped the Jewish experience; the fertile landscape of women’s bodies and how they mirror life-giving land; the tension between progress and tradition; the annihilation of the abused soul and its struggle to rebirth; the desperate places from which madness — and sometimes courage — grow.
So where does all this leave the average theatergoer?
It depends on one’s mood. Salomé is a thesis wrapped in high-concept theatrics. If you can enjoy the process of agreeing or disagreeing with Farber’s premise, then you will likely also appreciate the artful way in which the playwright makes her points. If anything approaching performance art and the phrase “feminine narrative” make you balk, it will be a long 90 intermission-less minutes.
Still, it is impossible not to appreciate the cohesive and engaged ensemble who deliver, if not a conventional drama of emotion, then certainly a spiritual potency. Aside from a memorable Salomé, Olwen Fouere as the Nameless Woman and narrator sources an eternal kind of anger as she carries the story over Farber’s rocky and sometimes mysterious terrain. Her accusatory stare is relentless, but taken conceptually, it makes much sense. Of the other players, Yuval Boim delivers an appealingly strange and exotic Caiaphas, one of the high priests, and adds much to the tableau with his expressive physicality.
Most unusual and affecting of all, however, is Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan, aka John the Baptist. Wild of beard and half-naked he may be, but Choukair’s Iokanaan walks and talks and questions with a palpable realness that transcends Farber’s construct. As he paces and speaks, translated by others, he evokes an essential saneness and humanity amidst the madness. His moments with Salomé might easily have turned into a caricature of attraction or holiness, but Choukair makes his Iokanaan, subtlety and without fanfare, a real and practical man. A man who Salomé might, in another lifetime, have loved. It doesn’t mean they would have loved — that is far too much the fairy tale for Farber — but it does give him the fragile, palpable pulse of life and it makes Salomé’s later request for his death that much more affecting. At least as far as Farber’s interpretation allows it.
How real, or surreal, the human relationships are is one of her many choices here — all with costs and benefits. Another is Farber’s strategic use of nudity. Although it is always possible to argue the artistic merits of getting naked on stage — that it represents the stripping away of various metaphorical layers or reveals human vulnerabilities — it is almost impossible to pull off. The reality is that in the vast majority of cases, nudity immediately and irrevocably breaks the fiction. It works only in the most finely-honed contexts. Even if the playwright or director wants it to break the fiction, it must be set up with the greatest of care.
Here, as brave and focused as the actor is and as much as Farber wants to manifest the concept of baptism and challenge our relationship with the female form, it serves only to distract. Put another way, the intellectual aspects may be important and compelling, but if they vanish as soon as one starts wondering where the razors were in the First Century ACE, then all is lost. It also begs another, rather cheeky, question: if the nudity has to be real, then why not the beheading? 10.22.15
Two Hours Traffic blog – “It begins at the end.” It makes sense to start there. Everyone has heard the name Salome, they know she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. But what else do you know?
In this pared-down and yet sumptuous and beautifully stylized piece from acclaimed adapter/director Yaël Farber, the story is told in a way you’ve never seen before. By intertwining the Biblical story in with ancient Hebraic and Arabic texts, it comes alive in a way I didn’t expect. We begin with the Nameless Woman (Olwen Fouéré), presumably the later-in-life Salome, speaking about that night at Machareus, but never quite giving enough details. At the same time, a younger girl is beaten, tied to a chair, and questioned by Pontius Pilate (T. Ryder Smith) about that night. And then suddenly, a man in a white linen sheet comes through the audience, speaking in (what I’m pretty sure) is Aramaic. It’s John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair), come to piss everyone off. The priests are mad that he’s baptizing people and not paying dues to the temple. Pontius Pilate is mad that he’s not telling people to be nice to Rome. The only person that isn’t upset is Salome – in fact, she defies all rules and goes to visit John in the cistern in which he’s been imprisoned. The journey into the cistern is the most harrowing part of the whole show – I won’t tell you why, but I will say that if you’re afraid of heights, you’re not going to love it. My favorite question this show asks is spendidly articulated by Drew Lichtenberg (literary manager at Shakespeare Theatre): What power does a woman’s voice have when it has been written in a man’s voice? Anyone that knows this story has likely heard of it because of the Bible, or perhaps all of the art that has been made on this subject – all of which had been created by men. This finally puts the story in the hands of the women of this story, and while it goes along with the same storyline that we all know, it’s a little different, it’s treated more gently and savagely in the hands of women. I realize that sounds weird, but the Nameless Woman, our guide through this world, does not shy away from how she was treated by Pontius Pilate, or what happen with her father, but it is not the main focus of her tale. SHE is the focus. What she experienced, what she learned, what she gained. And that is so important.
The show only runs 90 minutes, and it’s so easy to get caught up in the beautiful movements and the music (two unbelievable singers provide a beautiful backdrop to the more dramatic bits of the story, sounding foreign and sad) and the story – I want to tell you everything but I just can’t bring myself to spoil it for you! Even to me that sounds like a cop-out for writing, and I feel badly about it. Get over to the Lansburgh to see this thing, man. 10.20.15
White Rose blog, Fabolaktuko – I was lucky today to have an enlightening and exciting theater day.
Early in the day I attended a symposium on Farber’s play Salome and women in the theater with several outstanding panelists, among them director and writer Yael Farber.
Yael Farber directed The Crucible with Richard Armitage.
Asides Live: Where are Women’s Voices was hosted by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC. There were three one-hour panels: Female Heroes in Drama, Women’s Voices and Structured Poetics, Approaching Women of The Bible. Yael Farber was part of the second panel.
I arrived a bit late (thanks Metro) so had to sit in the front row, not my favorite spot usually. But it turned out for the best since I was only about two feet from the panelists who were seated up on a small platform in front of the room.
I’ll just give you a few impressions, concentrating on Salome and on Farber, since that was my main interest in attending. I also had a ticket for Salome (matinee) immediately following the symposium. But all were wonderful and informative panelists. I used to attend this sort of thing, and the theatre, quite a bit when I was younger. I sadly don’t really now for a variety of reasons, and I miss it.
The first panel featured Nadine Malouf who plays Salome.Without giving away too many spoilers, one of the highlights for me was her discussion about the “seven veils” and how the version in the play came about during rehearsals.
The second panel with Yael Farber was the one I was waiting for. She is the intelligent and articulate person we all saw or read in interviews during The Crucible, but she’s also very funny. Good to know considering the seriousness of her plays, both her writing, “reimagenings” and directing. I can see why she and Richard Armitage would get along and work so well together. Her lovely daughter was there too, sitting in the front row, and at one point joined her mother on the platform. (She’s about 12 or 13 I think.)
There were a few mentions about the Crucible by Farber, and she quoted Arthur Miller at one point. I wasn’t taking notes, so don’t remember the exact quote. Thought it was interesting that she said she never talked to any of the Crucible actors directly about their characters. (She was responding to a question about her way of working.) She believes in working with the physical first and foremost and discovering the characters and the play that way. Though she and Olwen Fouere, who plays the “nameless woman” in Salome and was one of the panelists, discussed together and separately how the conversation between director (Farber) and actor is a constant, before, during rehearsal, and even now that performances have started. I also must mention how much I enjoyed Olwen Fouere who I didn’t know before, or if I did, not her name. She’s coming back to DC in another play soon, one woman play, and I may go and see her.
(Yael didn’t mention Richard by name at any point, only referred to the Crucible cast.)
There was also a moment during the third panel that made me smile in recognition. Salome’s assistant director (Rob Jansen) mentioned this art book that Farber was constantly using during rehearsals and that she had the actors use as a reference and for inspiration. He said she also gave the book to the set designer for inspiration. The book, and the images, are from none other than Odd Nedrum.
Remember Odd Nedrum? Richard Armitage tweeted several images of Odd Nedrum’s work when he was, or before he was, working on Pilgrimage.
No one in the audience reacted to the name, even the assistant director had trouble remembering it. I was the only one in the room probably excited to hear the artist’s name and recognize it. I thought at that moment “I love you Richard for bringing so many wonderful new discoveries into my life.”
It was a pleasure to see and listen to Yael Farber in person.
The third panel was very interesting too, about women in the Bible and their interpretation through the ages. Interpretations by men of course.
On to the play:
There are many fabulous and detailed reviews and analysis of Farber’s Salome out there in the DC and professional theatre media. I’m just going to write a few of my impressions of the play, hopefully with only a few SPOILERS.
– Visually it is impressive, fantastic, minimalist. Amazing what light, fabric, color,texture, and a few chairs and tables will do.
– The opening was very reminiscent of the opening of The Crucible in movement and the use of music. Stage was not in the round, and setting in the Middle-East, colors, costumes, different. But the echoes of Crucible were there.
– A very political play, which I already knew from the symposium and two reviews I had read. Even so, still some surprising moments. Really a play that should be seen more than once. (Though don’t think I will, again for a variety of personal/logistic reasons, and it is sold out.) But should be seen twice.
– An impressive cast. Two performances stood out for me:
Olwen Fouere as Nameless Woman who may be Salome as an older woman, or her spirit. But she’s also an “oracle” and/or “Greek chorus”. To me she is the center of the play.
Ramzi Choukair as John the Baptist (Iokanaan) who speaks all his dialog in Arabic. I don’t understand Arabic, but I understand human expression and emotion. Even if we had not as the audience known what Iokanaan was saying, we would understand. The actor using the instrument of tone of his voice and body and facial expressions.
Music and singing throughout the performance contributed to the feeling of being in a play that feels very much like an opera. Though none of the lead actors sing.
Movement is also constant – the actors and the stage itself. Mesmerizing.
Good performance also from T. Ryder Smith as Pontius Pilate. All the political machinations of all involved. Nothing changes.
I’m not sure if I feel differently about Salome’s act now,not the seven veils, (though that’s an interesting scene) but what happens to John the Baptist. Was it a political act? Much remains unanswered.
I’m looking forward to continuing to follow Yael Farber’s work. I do hope she and Richard Armitage work together in the very near future, whether here in the US (New York I hope) in the UK, or wherever they will.