Vampires and Oscar Wilde seem like they should go together when you think on it. Not something I really had thought about very much. True, Wilde woo’d in his youth the icily beautiful young woman who eventually married Bram Stoker. One cannot also but think Wilde and Lestat might have gotten along fabulously. If vampires are vaguely decadent sophisticates, then the author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” would seem to a spirit sibling at least. More, he knew–only too well–what it was like to have to hide one’s desires in plain sight.
But when I saw the premiere of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre’s production of Wilde’s much-banned play “Salome” the real association between this writer and that genre became much clearer. Contrary to popular image, Wilde had a finely honed moral sense. He saw only too clearly the contradictions of man’s highest hopes, how they entwine with our basest desires. He talk of decadence, of aesthetics and those witty barbs coupled with outlandish behavior made him the Lady Gaga of his day. More, he expressed in this play more than any other how life can be empty enough to drive a person mad.
Remember how in Anne Rice’s novels and in Lindqvist’s “Let The Right One In” so many vampires eventually commit suicide? Wilde would have understood. Oh, yes.
This particular production has its strengths and weaknesses. Forgive the rant, but its faults are almost entirely those of technique. Too often actors and directors in the US simply never get trained about how to approach verse plays (such as “Salome”) and fall into a series of traps. Hardly a one such trap remained up-sprung here. Monologues of heightened language gushed forth, powered by one emotion. Stage business too often replaced genuine action between characters. Jokanaan (i.e. John the Baptist) looked great, but when he preached he clearly had no idea to whom he was speaking or what he expected to get from his words (with one marvelous exception–when he urged the title character to save her soul, that was REAL). Many times the background players did things with the air of a sitcom, or maybe a hint of vaudeville (which might have worked if taken much, much, much further–to the point of grotesquerie).
Mind you, “Salome” is very nearly a three-person play. It hinges on what happens between King Herod, his wife Herodias, and her daughter (his stepdaughter) the princess Salome. Tim Ottman gave the best performance in the show. His slightly gaunt features in whiteface captured a good look for the King. More importantly, his voice helped that face bring his character to life–and that character is a vampire, albeit not in the supernatural sense. Herod is a man who’s tired of life–having seen and done and tasted and tried everything he can think of, and in abundance. Now he reigns out of habit. His royal edicts are born out of whim and terror. Tired of life, yes–but horrified at the thought of death. Superstitious without being able (or willing) to treat spirituality or faith seriously. So he locks up a prophet who speaks out against him, yet refuses to kill the man, no matter how much his queen nags him to do so. The temptation with King Herod is to make him just an obnoxious bore. But Ottman played the pathos of the man. Like an ancient liche who clings to life, his Herod clings to his emptiness yet will recklessly seek to fill it.
In a way he’s a mirror of the title character–save that at least Herod has lived. Salome–she has all his ennui but nothing of his wisdom. Having grown up in a decadent court as the King’s only child (albeit by marriage), Salome plays the simple social games skillfully but automatically. Her problem? She doesn’t really want anything. Not very much anyway. A life without meaning is a life without hope, without any real desire. So when she sees a genuine prophet, someone totally different and (most importantly) brimming with genuine passion, what is her natural reaction? She wants it. Longs for it. Hungers for it.
Hungers for him.
Lita Penaherrera makes for a lovely princess, and has a natural charm about her. There’s something nicely catlike about her manner and looks. Banter between her and Herod reminded me weirdly enough of scenes between vampires and their sires in films like “Interview” and “Vampire Journals” and even “Near Dark.” A stretch? Not really. What she and Herod have in common is a deep, abiding thirst for life–one that each will go to extremes to slake. How vampiric. And yes, how undead. Not alive, not really, but still moving about making a fuss. Dangerous. Boundless appetite coupled with extraordinary power.
Penaherrera made an unfortunate choice with her Salome–to portray her as a spoiled brat. Demanding her way she did not so much cajole or manipulate or even play as pout and have a temper tantrum. She reminded me of Veruca Salt, a little bit. Instead of a teenager with the world-weariness of an ancient, what we got was a deranged child. She longs for John the Baptist, to touch him, to feel him, to kiss him. When he refuses, she’s left unsatisfied enough a terrible idea comes forth. Her stepfather–clearly savoring an incestuous lust that quickens his aging flesh–forever asks her to sit by him, share some fruit with him, drink from the same glass of wine as himself. Dance for him. He finally offers anything she desires up to half of his kingdom if she will but dance for him.
Anything? Anything at all? Yes, he vows. They are both empty and seek to fill themselves even a little.
So she dances. Let it be said this dance was very scenic in many ways. More modern than middle eastern, but then the play was set in a modern era (or some version of one) so no complaints there. Panaherrera is indeed a lovely young lady, and she can indeed dance (having worked with plenty of actors who cannot I realize this is no small thing). One can fully understand Herod’s desires. The audience applauded for her dance, quite rightfully so.
Next, she springs the trap. Her price? The head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Herod, horrified at the thought of either breaking his word or slaying a prophet (the man is intensely superstitious remember), begs and cajoles and tries to negotiate his way out of it. She remains implacable. Her mother (the third major player–quite competently performed by Sasha Ilford–this is a compliment since many actors rarely rise to the level of competence) crows with triumph and pride, under the mistaken impression this is a gift to her from Salome. Ah, no. It is an attempt to feed, to quench an undying thirst for love, for life, for meaning. Salome no less than Herod is a vampire of sorts. Is it any wonder her love story ends with the death of her beloved? That the end of the play is a soliloquy to a severed head–a living dead girl exulting that she may finally kiss Jokanaan’s beautiful mouth, then realizing the man she loved is now destroyed. What good his mouth for kissing without a tongue that speaks and kisses back? How can any face remain lovely to behold when the eyes are empty, dull, nothing but flesh with no fire within them. He cannot see her. And Salome…weeps.
Who does not see in her a vampire? Someone neither dead nor alive, eternally hungry and forever unsatisfied, a temptress who kills the man she loves then kisses his bloody dead lips? This production has its faults and honestly, they are many, but the core was there. Appropriately, the co-producers of this show is the Fabulous Monsters Performance Group. If anyone is interested, you can learn more about the show at zombiejoes.com or urbandeath.com.