Only the misguided sublimate their lust. Yet sadly, the same primordial urge that brings gourmets to the table and satyrs to their seraglios is absent from The Atlanta Shakespeare Company's production of Oscar Wilde's "Salom?."
Apparently none of the principal actors took the time to look in the faces of the women who dance in Atlanta's myriad strip clubs or the men who watch them. These are the countenances of seduction and lust and they are nowhere in evidence on the Shakespeare Tavern stage.
Considering the play is about how Herod's obsession with the virginal Salom? compelled him to decapitate Jokanaan (John the Baptist), an act which frightened the obviously superstitious ruler of Judea, the absence of palpable lechery renders the dialogue unbelievable.
Wilde's manuscript is rife with the poetry of one who was thoroughly capable of expressing the sensual realities of a lifestyle given to excessive immersions in the pleasures of the flesh. Moreover, as one fully in touch with the full spectrum of primordial passions, Wilde proves equally capable of elucidating the revulsion felt by the acetic Jokanaan for the temptress Salom?.
Therefore, when Herod (Jeff Watkins), a man who clearly revels in the perquisites of his office, offers Salom? (Barbara Cole) half of everything he possesses the actor has to back this up with a convincing illustration of a man enslaved by his carnal appetites. In this regard Watkins fails.
To his credit the actor renders those aspects of Herod suggestive of an addle-brained voluptuary with aplomb. At times Watkins is very funny, and his ability to realize a Herod distraught because of his unbridled hunger provides genuine tension.
For her part Cole fails to provide a performance capable of eliciting in men those cravings so evident in strip clubs. During Salom?s infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils" the actor whirls, undulates, and gets semi-naked, but at the Crazy Horse her performance would produce meager financial remuneration, certainly not offers of half of a potentate's dominion.
Similarly, Jokanaan's (Peter Hauenstein) religious mania is as removed from the delirium suggested by his dialogue as overt sexuality is from the performances of Watkins and Cole.
While Wilde wrestles with the heart and soul of man, the cast turns the playwright's creation into a production for the Family Channel.
Despite this the dialogue provides much that is intellectually provocative for those willing to engage with the conceptual propositions the playwright incorporates into his work.
For example, Wilde makes clear Jokanaan's act of faith is not only responsible for his passionate commitment to "the son of man," but impacts perception in general. Thus it is that though some of what the prophet perceives is alleged to be divine other aspects of the consensual reality are capable of obscuring this perception.
Implicit in the prophet's asceticism is the belief that the physical can deny access to the metaphysical. Thus, as Jokanaan's misogyny makes clear, the knowledge of the senses is capable of interfering with a full and complete awareness of truth. Faith has rendered relative the notion of universality.
So it is that the prophet spurns Salom?'s advances with an unwarranted and caustic virulence: "Daughter of Sodom, come not near me!"
Reinforcing this faith-based commitment to the verity of sensory information is the issue of whether an individual is capable of physically perceiving the divine.
The commitment of the faithful to the truth of sensory knowledge demands that such physical manifestations are possible. Hence the asceticism of those such as Jokanaan.
Wilde provides a counterpoint to this assertion in his incorporation of theological discussions regarding various Jewish sects and apocryphal traditions:
First soldier: The Jews worship a God that you cannot see.
The Cappadocian: I cannot understand that.
First soldier: In fact, they only believe in things that you cannot see.
Though the assertion of a Judeo/Christian continuum has been propagated by many for reasons exceeding the scope of this review, Wilde brings forth a salient argument that stands in bold contrast to this profession.
The Jews described above make no such commitment to the truth of the physical. Their awareness of universal truth precedes the act of faith. (It must be said that in this Jews reflect the core teachings of Buddhism and Taoism. This is intellectually provocative in and of itself.)
So we are left with a difficult decision. The play as written is quite stimulating intellectually and deserves contemplation.
Further, Jeff Watkins brings much levity to his role; he has a gift for such things. Also, Joanna Daniel as Herodias and Lily Yancey as her page provide credible work.
But overall, considering the gravity and intensity of its themes, the production's shortcomings leave one looking forward to a staging worthy of the material.