New York

Salome

BAM | Fisher Building

Like an Aubrey Beardsley sketch come to life, Steven Berkoff’s staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome unfolds with unabashed decadence. An unholy cadre of sycophantic courtiers rehearse a repertory of hyperstylized gestures, tempo molto lento, to Roger Doyle’s ghostly sonata (played on an upstage piano to sound like Scriabin just before the thunder). While previous stagings (including the overly sincere production starring Al Pacino at Circle in the Square in 1992) have tried too hard to capture the Wilde within, Berkoff follows Wilde’s own delicious maxim that “nothing succeeds like excess.” Like Salome with her fetishistic fancy for Jokanaan’s “ivory skin,” Berkoff fixates all his energy on the surface. It is a wise and Wildean strategy, well-matched by the play’s purple prose and, at times, preposterous repetition. One might even be tempted to call Berkoff’s interpretation definitive, were it not for the smug self-importance of such a designation. For as Wilde himself asserted (and Berkoff deliciously echoes), “In matters of grave importance, style not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

Berkoff has set Wilde’s morbidly charming play against a ’20s backdrop, managing to evoke Edwardian indolence in King Herod’s court. His slow-motion tactic teases out new ways of looking at these overdressed, overstuffed poseurs in German Expressionist makeup. Narraboth’s death is both ridiculous and sublime. Committing hari-kari as if covered in molasses, he floats to the ground, head bouncing once, twice, thrice . . . as in the melodramatic silent films of the same era as the set.

But most of the praise must be reserved for Berkoff’s brazen performance as Herod. With a polyvocal virtuosity to match his character’s polymorphous perversity, he out-Herods Herod. Gliding from nasal twang to throaty hauteur—via a basso none-too-profundo—Berkoff sounds like Bert Lahr doing Bette Davis. His bald dome powdered white, he saunters along his own sunset-scrimmed boulevard, himself a hybrid of Gloria Swanson and Erich Von Stroheim. He perches on his throne while one half of his chunky frame performs a spastic elementary backstroke. He implores Salome in the tones of a wounded schnauzer to let him see her do the “dance of the seven veils.” He notices the dead body of the Syrian captain—who saves Jokanaan from Salome’s advances by jumping between the two of them and stabbing himself—only after he has waded in the Syrian’s blood. “It is ridiculous to kill yourself” Herod sputters. His jaded wife (Queen Herodias, expertly sketched by Carmen Du Sautoy) couldn’t agree more about the ludicrous nature of such self-sacrifice, reports equating Jokanaan and the Messiah notwithstanding: “I do not believe in miracles,” she sneers, to nobody in particular. “I have seen too many.”

As a jaded theatergoer, I’ve often thought the same thing. This time though, I’ve got to admit that even if Berkoff’s Salome is not exactly miraculous, it’s unquestionably divine.

Steven Drukman