Salome: From Femme Fatale to Political HeroineWashington Post
In hindsight, there were actually some advantages in growing up in the Bible Belt.
One of them was Sunday School where I gained an appreciation of the Good Book’s most notorious women: Bathsheba, Jezebel, and perhaps the precursor of all femme fatales, Salome, or the nameless stepdaughter of a powerful ruler who gets John the Baptist’s head on a platter, after performing a strip tease for the lascivious Herod.
Her story has always perplexed me, thanks to the famous Strauss opera and the Oscar Wilde play on which it was based.
But her story was never really her story.
She has always been an invention of sorts, a myth created by men, perhaps more interested in her sexual allure and titillating dance than her humanity.
I had the pleasure of seeing a new take on “Salome” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company here in Washington, a fitting start to their Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Director Yael Farber has adapted the Wilde play into a first person narrative, finally giving Salome her own voice.
“Wilde tells us it had to do with sex, that Salome desired to kiss John the Baptist’s mouth. The scriptures tell us it was vengeance, which her mother Herodias sought against Herod, ” Farber explains.
“Women are still playing the vengeful harpy, in Hollywood, in everyday life. I could not be less interested in telling that story.”
The first voice we hear is of an aging Salome looking back on that famous night, when John the Baptist died, setting off a political firestorm, as revolutionaries, as John was, were of more use to the establishment in prison.
Salome is taken prisoner and interrogated about her role in John’s death, but we see her resolute, brazen, even as her captors taunt and abuse her.
In flashbacks, Salome becomes fascinated with John, not so much as an object of desire, but as a fellow prisoner of Herod. One is left with the impression that the two identify with each other, both courageous, but falling weak under Herod’s oppression.
She resists her stepfather’s sexual overtures, rather than manipulate them, in contrast to previous interpretations.
“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.”
We do see Salome naked, in a sensual scene is which her body is washed and clothed in slow motion by handmaidens, but the story’s innate sensuality was never a problem for Farber.
“I don’t want to shy away from the great danger of the feminine, from the notion of powerful sensuality attendant in this story. Women are dangerous. That’s the beautiful thing about us.”
Salome, We Hardly Knew Ye
By Peter Marks Theater critic October 14 at 6:30 PM
Salome seen with fresh eyes: Nadine Malouf, center is Salome in Yael Farber’s new adaptation. Elan Zafir, left, and Shahar Isaac, right, restrain her as a spectral Olwen Fouere watches. (Scott Suchman)
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?
Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic. View Archive
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.
Click here for more information!
Salome, adapted and directed by Yael Farber. Movement, Ami Shulman; sets and costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Donald Holder; original music and sound, Mark Bennett; fight consulting, Robb Hunter. With Shahar Isaac, Richard Saudek, Lubana Al Quntar, Tamar Ilana. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $20-$118. Through Nov. 8 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.
REVIEW: SALOME AT SHAKESPEARE THEATRE COMPANY
REVIEWS OCTOBER 14, 2015 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 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.
DC Theatre Scene
Yaël Farber’s Salomé, STC at the Lansburgh Theatre
October 15, 2015 by Susan Galbraith Leave a Comment
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.
Salomé . Adapted and Directed by Yaël Farber . Featuring Lubana Al Quntar, Yuval Boim, Ramzi Choukair, Olwen Fouéré, Jeff Hayenga, Tamar Ilana, Shahar Isaac, Ismael Kanater, Nadine Malouf, Richard Saudek, T. Ryder Smith, and Elan Zafir. Scenic/ Costume Designer: Susan Hilferty . Lighting Designer: Donald Holder . Composer/ Sound Designer: Mark Bennett . Movement Director: Ami Shulman . Fight Consultant: Robb Hunter . Literary Manager/ Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg . Head of Voice and Text: Ellen O’Brien . Assistant Director: Rob Jansen . Production Stage Manager: Laura Smith . Assistant Stage Manager: Elizabeth Clewley . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘Salomé’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company
by David Siegel on October 15, 2015
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 is 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?
Nadine Malouf (Salomé). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Nadine Malouf (Salomé). Photo by Scott Suchman.
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-talkativ, 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 things about us.”
From left, Nadine Malouf (Salomé), Ramzi Choukair (Iokanaan), and Olwen Fouéré (Nameless Woman). Photo by Scott Suchman.
From left, Nadine Malouf (Salomé), Ramzi Choukair (Iokanaan), and Olwen Fouéré (Nameless Woman). Photo by Scott Suchman.
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.
One last note, there are many talkbacks scheduled, which will allow you to express your feelings and opinions about this production
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Salomé plays through November 8, 2015 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.
A CurtainUp DC Review
By Susan Davidson
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 FouÃ©ré, 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 YaÃ«l 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. YaÃ©l 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.
BWW Review: Stunning and Provocative SALOME at the Shakespeare Theatre Company
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.BWW Review: Stunning and Provocative SALOME at the Shakespeare Theatre Company
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.
BWW Review: Stunning and Provocative SALOME at the Shakespeare Theatre CompanyBecause 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.
MD Theatre Guide
“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.
…STC’s ‘Salomé’ was the most captivating production I’ve ever seen.
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.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Advisory: This play has nudity and adult themes.
Salomé plays through November 8, 2015 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW Washington, DC. For more information about performances and accessibility please call the Box Office at 202-547-1122 or click here.
COMMUNITY DIGITAL NEWS
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s mesmerizing adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s controversial verse play is like a mesmerizing séance of voices from the past.
WASHINGTON, October 20, 2015 – 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.
It is Malouf’s climatic performance of this famous dance 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 Jeff Hayenga and Shahar Isaac who portray devious jail keepers Bar Giora and Annas. All reflect the worst of an ancient civilization where “Everyone is for sale,” perhaps foreshadowing our own times in the process.
Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Performances of “Salome” run through November 8, 2015 at the Lansburgh Theater, 450 7th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004-2207.
Approximate running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, without intermission.
Note: Production contains nudity and graphic themes and is recommended for mature audiences.
WASHINGTON CITY PAPER
Directed and adapted by Yaël Farber At Shakespeare Theatre to Nov. 8. 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’sSalomé 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.
Washington Life Magazine
On Stage: Hauntingly Special
Posted on 28 October 2015
Forget everything you think you know about the biblical figure for Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Salome.’
By Chuck Conconi
At the beginning of Yael Farber’s “Salome” at Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre when the 12 actors wait like statues in the wings and then walk at a stiff, measured pace to their positions on the virtually empty stage, it becomes immediately obvious that Farber has created a hauntingly special drama.
Produced as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, this “Salome” is like nothing we think we know about the brief biblical passage in which Salome is a nameless figure, or in the femme fatal creation of Oscar Wilde or the Robert Strauss opera. This “Salome” stands alone in its symbolic theatricality and may well be one of the best productions of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Once the cast is in position, most of them gather behind a crude, long table on saw horses, reminiscent of a Last Supper gathering, the white haired crone, the Nameless Woman, announces in a world-weary voice that “I begin at the end.” Like a lone Greek chorus, she is the aged Salome, and is here to bring the past into the present. Olwen Fouere as the haunting, Nameless Woman is mesmerizingly emotionless. She is the guide who introduces a Salome that is politically astute.
Salome is every oppressed woman, but one who understands how to turn her victimization into what she can control. The young Salome, an intense Nadine Malouf, seeks the head of Iokanaan (John the Baptist), who under Farber’s adaptation and direction is much less the familiar religious fanatic. He is a political zealot crying out against the Roman occupation. Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan is still the hermit who has been subsisting on locusts and honey in the desert, but in this production, he is a revolutionary on a mission that foretells the coming struggles against the Roman occupiers.
The role of John the Baptist in more traditional productions is so annoyingly self-righteous that it is difficult to care about him losing his head and having it served up on a platter. This characterization is much different. He is the only performer on the stage shouting out in Arabic, but there is an immediate translation and his rage makes sense.
The other major difference is that when Salome asks Herod for the prophet’s head, she is doing so because she knows that he wants to die and that Herod astutely fears his execution will make him a martyr. Herod, performed with the appropriate sleaziness by Ismael Kanater, needs to get along with the Romans so he can go about his building projects. Farber’s Salome is a woman capable of being more than a sex symbol or a Sunday School lesson. She is a woman who understands that she can be a political force in a male-dominated world and if that means taking advantage of Herod’s lust for her, then so be it.
Salome runs for 90 intense minutes without interruption. Its mood is enhanced by the exotic, wailing voices of the singers Lubana Al Quntar and Tamar Ilana, and from Mark Bennett’s composition and sound design. The accompanying stylized movements and powerful voices of the performers are part of what is a mesmerizing spectacle under the movement direction of Ami Shulman.
Susan Hilferty’s scenic and costume design creates a biblical landscape of the bleak, harsh world of the early years of the first century. She uses the entire Lansburgh stage, open and mostly empty, back to the building’s cinder block wall, evoking the bleakness of Herod’s desert kingdom.
There is a genius about Farber’s “Salome” that rises to that rare status of a production that challenges and defines just how important theater can be in ways it can challenge preconceived notions and perceptions.
“Salome” continues through November 8 at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St., NW. Tickets are $44-$118 and available at 202-547-122 or online here.