Think You Know Salome’s Story? Maybe Not

A few minutes into Salome at the Shakespeare Theater, I realized that I am a shockingly conservative play-goer. With few exceptions, I have read or known every playwright I have seen: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Williams, Shaw, Ibsen, Moliere, etc. Ok, even if I hadn’t read them, I knew who they were. Contemporary playwrights? Sure, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein, Neil Simon. Does Mel Brooks count? Lin-Manuel Miranda? Of plays that were more avant garde (I’ve already established that I’m conservative, so stifle the eye roll, please), they include the Black Watch plays – the Afghanistan Cycle and a post MacBeth play of English occupation and Scottish insurrection, both of which I loved … and this weekend’s retelling of Salome.

IMG_0078Of course, history is written by the victors. But are certain voices written out? No doubt. And Salome fits nicely into the Women’s Voices Theater Festival giving voice to women’s stories.

As I thought about plays and playwrights, I realized how few women playwrights I’ve seen. And as a result, how few women-centric plays? Not that men can’t write strong women characters. Several do it well. But Salome stood out as a powerful, provocative story, partly because of the strong POV of director Yael Farber.

Was the play about American occupation of Iraq? Maybe. After all, like the Romans, we “allow” the local people to keep their gods and traditions, and we see ourselves as bringing them civilization. And we are confused by their need for self-expression and self-determination. But that a woman would catalyze a movement? Actually, in today’s world, that may be both more and less possible. So it’s a story of multiple levels of oppression and disappearance.

Salome. It turns out that her name was never written in the Bible. Like Mephistopheles. Yet through other literary ventures – Oscar Wilde in Salome’s case and Milton in the case of the devil, their story is “known.” She dances for Herod and asks for the head of John the Baptist as an act of revenge. But was that the “real” story? What will future generations think of today’s American interventions – who will tell that story and how?

Salome was spare, yet powerful. The 100 minute performance was intense and moved quickly. Even Iokoannen (John the Baptist) and his screeds in Aramaic? semi-ancient Hebrew? preaching in an unknown language, to be translated by a cast member, seemed normal after a few minutes. I certainly emerged myself in the feel of the time – the chaos, the multilingual, multicultural, multisectarian cosmopolitan that was the setting of our play. It could be Kabul or Baghdad, but it would have been Washington, DC, as well. In a Philip K. Dick dystopian future.

So back to Salome, if that was even her name. Subversive, thought-provoking. Certainly disturbing. There’s nudity – but that’s the least of it. There’s political oppression, waterboarding, rape. And perhaps worse, in today’s need to be seen and noted – disappearance. The erasing of meaning, impact and legacy.

Salome is only playing for another week, but go see it if you can. You’ll have an amazing post-theater dinner discussion, if nothing else.

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