Al Pacino’s entrance in “Salome” is a garish onslaught of black and gold silk robes, oversize jewelry and facial make-up that can best be described as depraved. His mouth stretched to a gash, his tongue darting lizard-like and his speech a drunken, world-weary slur, Pacino’s over-the-top Herod is dissipation personified, at once silly and grotesque, creepy and comical, oddly entrancing and entirely in keeping with a production that is an explosion of Biblical kitsch.
As the lights go up on this utterly watchable revival of Oscar Wilde’s once-banned work, audience first sees a soldier in sexual ecstasy (he’s being serviced by a bound male slave), and the production’s prevailing tone of decadence is set.
Director Robert Allan Ackerman ably guides his cast through the Wildean terrain, missing no indulgence in the play’s bitter humor and baroque excesses.
The ultimate tale of a woman scorned, “Salome” is Wilde’s take on the familiar story of John the Baptist, here called Jokanaan the Prophet.
Imprisoned in a well and railing hellfire and damnation, Jokanaan (Arnold Vosloo) draws the attention and ardor of Salome (Sheryl Lee), stepdaughter (and niece) of Herod (Pacino), the Tetrarch of Judaea.
Wilde’s Salome is not the Bible’s spoiled brat, but a drained, neurotic woman desperate for meaning and love, both of which she believes she’s found in the prophet.
When Jokanaan, summoned from the well, rebuffs her advances, revenge is inevitable. Enter Herod, a king who spends too much time eying his beautiful stepdaughter, much to the consternation of his wife (and Salome’s mother) Herodias (Suzanne Bertish).
After much wicked bantering and family squabbling, Herod requests that Salome dance for him and, in return, he’ll grant her any wish. Her desire, of course, is the prophet’s head on a silver platter.
“Salome” is an exercise in cynicism, almost entirely lacking in heroes–the closest to that breed is a young army captain (Esai Morales) so smitten with Salome that he kills himself when she turns her affections to the prophet.
He dies shortly after the play begins, leaving the stage to the royal degenerates and their entourage of foolish priests and cowering soldiers. Even the prophet seems more lunatic than holy man.
Ackerman and his cast revel in Wilde’s quagmire, whether it’s Herod whining about stepping in spilled blood or Salome performing a lewd, angry dance of the seven veils (quirkily choreographed by Lar Lubovitch). The result is often campy , usually overwrought and sometimes just plain goofy, but never less than intriguing.
As could be expected, Pacino dominates the production, doing vocal tricks that make him sound like a besotted Charles Laughton. He slouches in his throne, minces around the set and flirts with Salome.
Pacino only slowly uncovers the danger lurking beneath Herod’s surface, his offhand disposition of Salome proving that a king scorned is the monster he accuses her of being.
As Salome, Lee gives a performance that manages to keep step with the scene-stealing Pacino, and that’s no small feat. Her stint on David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” seems to have been good training, as she handles her more bizarre tasks (culminating in an erotic pas de deux with a very lifelike severed head) with ease.
Bertish, costumed like the evil queen in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” displays a wicked sense of comedy as Herod’s brittle wife, and Vosloo, his long, scraggly black hair a sharp contrast to his sleek, pale body, is effective as the raving prophet. Morales is a bit hammy as the distraught swain, perhaps hoping to pack too much acting into too little time on stage.
Zack Brown’s regal costumes are appropriately gaudy, and his set–a platformed terrace of Herod’s palace painted entirely in bronze and partially lit by blazing torches — is more than suitable in its nightmarish effect. Set makes very good use of Circle’s troublesome theater-in-the-round.
Exactly why Pacino (or Circle in the Square, for that matter) chose to stage this seldom-produced play is a mystery.
Even with various contemporary touches “Salome,” written in 1896, offers no revelations, no probing insights into modern life. The play, at least in this production, is a curiosity, a grotesque. But just try averting your eyes.