Bridge Rep Serves Up Imaginative ‘Salome’ (4 Stars)

Salome – Written by Oscar Wilde; Directed by Olivia D’Ambrosio;  Scenic Design by Esme Allen; Lighting Design by Stephen Petrilli; Costumes by Chelsea Kerl; Sound & Composition by Bevin Kelley. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theatre at First Church, Boston, 66 Marlborough St. Boston through October 18th.

It seems only fitting that on the night I took in Bridge Rep’s imaginative production of Salome, Oscar Wilde’s retelling of the Biblical story, a rare ‘supermoon’ blood moon lunar eclipse occurred. Given the omnipresence of the moon in the play, it was certainly serendipitous that on that very evening it went from brilliantly “pale” to blood red. The lunar event, which last occurred in 1982 and won’t happen again until 2033, perfectly reflected the narrative of the play, both celestially and figuratively. Driven by lust for what they cannot have, a number of the protagonists in this work are unquestionably moonstruck – which turns out to be fateful for each of them.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Salome accedes to the wishes of her incestuous-minded stepfather Herod to dance for him in exchange for anything she wishes, which turns out to be the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), who earlier in the day had spurned her advances. Director Olivia D’Ambrosio has chosen to update the piece from just prior to the arrival of Christ to 1970, and while the costuming and few pop hits from that era reflect that change, it seems largely incidental to the work.

What is impactful to the performance however, is the clever use of the space. The room is set up as a banquet hall, with the stage at the front of the room and John the Baptist imprisoned on the second level (with only his shadow visible) as he foretells the coming of the savior. The characters mill about the space, intermingling with the audience, and as the play opens, the beautiful Salome is literally outside the theater, visible through one of the enormous windows, gazing at the moon. While she does so, she is being watched intently by the young (and obviously smitten) Captain, who is nearly overcome by her pale beauty and says so aloud to the Queen’s page. He is nervously warned by the page, “You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen.” Which is something that Herod would have been wise to heed as well. So when Salome manipulates the fawning Captain into bringing Jokanaan to her, which was forbidden by Herod, we know that this will not turn out well for anyone.

Herod is another who can’t take his eyes (or mind) off the princess, despite his wife’s protestations, and Salome can’t help but notice. “It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that. I know not what it means,” she says, before adding, “In truth, yes I know it.” So when Jokanaan rejects her and she seeks to punish him, she knows she can get Herod to bow to her insane demands, which ultimately leads to the dance and the fateful (and bloody) bargain. Even if you know the story, what follows is still fairly shocking. But for all the madness and violence, there are many very funny moments in this play (it is written by Wilde, remember). Upon learning that the young captain has killed himself, Herod remarks, “That seems strange to me. I thought it was only the Roman philosophers who killed themselves.”

There are some solid performances in this production, beginning with Shura Baryshnikov as Salome. She is a graceful and gifted dancer, to be sure, but she also delivers a convincing performance as the spoiled and utterly mad princess. The actual dance that she performs in exchange for the head of the saint on a platter is in fact far less sensual or erotic than has been portrayed in film versions. Instead, Baryshnikov goes about her dance in almost workmanlike fashion, wearing an intensely cold and almost detached expression as she completes her chore. As Herod, Bob Murphy is appropriately lustful, and Veronica Wiseman is effective as the concerned wife trying to keep a lid on him. Woody Gaul plays John the Baptist as more madman than spiritual harbinger, and Cliff Odle has some very funny moments as the First Soldier.

The intimate setting of the First Church lends itself well to this production, and it’s worth seeing. For more info, go to: