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There's A Play In There Somewhere

June 22, 2012

It's sometimes the case that I go to the theatre to see a new drama and walk away struggling to figure out where exactly the play lay amid the myriad ideas, words, sounds and images that were thrown at me from the stage.

Such is the case with Salomania, a play by the Bay Area-based director and playwright Mark Jackson, at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

The production is certainly built on dramaturgically-enticing source material. It takes as its inspiration the real life case of Maud Allan, an American dancer who emigrated to England at the turn of the last century, and caused a sensation with her racy interpretation of the title character in Oscar Wilde's Salome. During the First World War, at a time when the recently deceased Wilde was widely discredited for his "degenerate" ways and plays, high ranking, stuffy Brits feared Allan's adverse impact on upstanding British morale and attempted to discredit the celebrity. The danceuse-provocateuse responded by bringing the slander against her to court. But her adversaries, led by newspaper owner Noel Pemberton-Billing, fired back by attempting to draw a link between the "sadistic" content of Salome and Allan's dark past in San Francisco, where her brother was tried and hanged for committing an atrocious crime against two young women.

The story is brought to life on stage by a wonderful group of actors. Madeline H D Brown plays a curvacious, piquant Allan and Mark Anderons Phillips is wonderfully phlegmatic as Allan's nemesis, Pemberton-Billing; Kevin Clarke, Alex Moggridge, Anthony Nemirovsky, Marilee Talkington and Liam Vincent round out the capable cast.

Yet Salomania doesn't really hang together as a coherent piece of theatre. The themes and ideas, though interesting -- such as the right of a state to control gender roles and sexual politics -- slosh about and are not deeply explored or fully developed. Some of Jackson's thinking is heavy-handed, like the nod to the tyrannies of McCarthyism and the business of "naming names." And a couple of the staging concepts cause a similar thunk to the head, like Brown's constant slow perambulations around the stage during scenes in which she has no lines but for some reason insists on having a physical presence.

That being said, there are a couple of utterly compelling scenes in the mix in the second half of the two and a half hour production. My favorite takes place in a bar. It involves a cynical young soldier played by Moggridge and a pretty widow (Talkington). The two meet over drinks. The intensity of the solder's feelings come across with sexually-charged language, and the woman responds with understated longing that is part knowing and part innocence. The combination of emotion and restraint in the beautifully-written 15-minute scene says more about the impact of war on everyday people than the entire play does. I longed to hear more about these two characters and watch their lives unfold. But the play moved in different directions and fell silent on the matter.

It's difficult to know what Jackson, who directed a fairly good production of Wilde's Salome at Aurora a few years ago, is driving at with Salomania in its present incarnation. With some judicious cutting and rethinking, a true play may yet emerge.

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