Arts & Events
Mark Jackson has shown his genius again in “SALOMANIA” at Aurora Theater Co.
It is a historical piece—which is Jackson’s métier—which has special relevance to current events.
It is about the radical press savaging a reputation with the charge of homosexuality. (For timely irony, read current headlines about John Travolta!)
He tells an engaging story ripped from the headlines of 1918 about “The Cult of the Clitoris” set against the background of war when civil rights are apt to go sideways and a frightened populace accepts rumors and nonsense as truth.
The star of the show is Jackson’s superior directing and stagecraft. His ability to stage epic drama in Aurora’s contained theatre space, and to keep our attention rapt during long periods of immobile conversation is worth the price of admission.
While preparing for directing Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” at Aurora a few years ago, Jackson came across transcripts from trials of the day that inspired this play.
Our heroine is Maud Allan (played by Madeline H.D. Brown*), an American, who performs the “Seven Veils” dance in England at the time of the First World War. Having studied music in pre-war Germany and being a friend of the prime minister and his wife, she is an easy target.
Our villain Noel Pemberton-Billing (played by Mark Anderson Phillips), is a British MP and a publisher who attacks Maud hoping to get a defamation law suit in order to gain publicity for his paper. His “Cult” accusatory article vouches that the wives of the prime minister and other high-ranking officials, along with their husbands, were undermining the war effort through debauchery and being in league with the Enemy Germans. Germans were then portrayed as purveyors of perversion. He touts a secret “black book” with 47,000 names of traitors. This historical vignette gives perspective on our own history: Senator Joe “Tail Gunner” McCarthy whose accusations of Communists in the State Department led to the HUAC trials of the 1950’s (“I hold here in my hand a list of 205….”), as well as current Hate-Radio figures whose names you know but I won’t give recognition to here. Phillips embodies the Machiavel, and we just love to hate him—and we are often emotionally divided when he is making a valid point or ignoring rules of procedure to speak his mind.
Oscar Wilde shows up as a martyred figure to dispense some witty, if tragic, wisdom. Testifying at Allan’s trial is Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquis of Queensbury who brought charges of sodomy and corruption against Wilde for which he served two years at hard labor in Reading Gaol. Liam Vincent’s poignant and detailed performance in Douglas’ role wrenches our hearts with the inner turmoil and self-hate that society wreaked on those accused of participating in “the love that dares not speak its name.”
Though lesbianism was not against the law, the debauchery charges were viewed then as we perhaps view pedophilia now. (When presented with the Sodomy Laws, Queen Victoria refused to sign the part which outlawed female-female sexual relations for she did not believe that women did such things.)
Jackson’s depiction of soldiers in the trenches is realistic and wrenching, too. They have two distractions from the nerve-wracking tedium and the carnage: the headlines of the defamation trial which Allan brings against Billings, and the singing of a bird near twilight (which harkens to the famous McCrae poem, “In Flanders Fields… /The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below.)
Ms. Brown as Maud Allan has a figure which is a replica of the nude marble female statues popular at the time, and the alabaster radiance of her skin in the light designed by Heather Basarah adds to that effect. Her dancing is modern, and surprisingly chaste for the hullabaloo surrounding her performance. Her dance costume (designed by Callie Floor) is a halter and girdle of hand-stitched pearls and rubies, is much less revealing than that which can be surveyed on the publicly displayed covers at magazine stands today. She wanders through the scenes of courtroom and battles as an ever-present figure in which the Zeitgeist is embodied.
Men’s ignorance of the word “clitoris” and “orgasm” bring humor until one realizes that this was fact and not contrivance. (To compare how far we’ve come: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoris and http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/5013866.stm)
The set and its use are exceptional. Award-winning designer Nina Ball has outdone herself with a collage of desks, chairs, sandbags, cabinets—all dirt brown—that supports a platform, which is used as battlefield, judge’s platform and witness box, changing closet, bar, and incites the imagination.
All actors other than Ms. Brown play multiple roles. The dialects coached by Lisa Anne Porter are reasonably accurate with some variance from actor to actor in authenticity, but overall the players do a believable job in the switching of accents.
The sound design of Matt Stines and lighting design combine to reproduce photographic flash powder bangs and war sounds which jar us into an aural tension that reflects the action.
During two intimate and revealing conversations, the staging is inventive and extraordinary.
It’s a director’s nightmare to have two people sit at a table for an extended period and chat. The same stage picture can put an audience to sleep. Director Jackson employs a simple cinematic device to solve this conundrum. He has two characters push the moveable platform on which sits the table, chairs and actors, across the stage, then rotate it. Having it hand-operated adds to the imagination.
In another masterful turn, a scene of execution by hanging is done simply with lights and sound and more effective than any trapdoor or other contrivance could have been. I understand that it was an invention since the planned machinery would not comply, and that’s good directing.
As in so many British or Anglophilic dramas, the Americans take a hit. A paranoid American/Canadian ex-intelligence officer is played by deeply talented Anthony Nemirovsky who has appeared in other Jackson productions, and who, in certain scenes, bears a disturbing resemblance to the great Peter Lorre.
Kevin Clarke distinguishes himself with turns as the insipid judge, the prime minister, and Oscar Wilde.
One of the more moving scenes is an encounter in a pub between a soldier (Alex Moggridge*) on a three-day pass and a local girl (Marilee Talkington*) whose abusive husband “was taken by the Kaiser.” It reveals the loathing and desperation war causes; Jackson’s dialogue and their connection in this scene is has a sharp edge of reality to it. Combined with the Maud Allan’s conversation with Oscar Wilde, these two conversations may prove to be memorable moments for theatre-goers.
(*- member, Actors Equity Association)
Salomania written and directed by Mark Jackson
Playing through 7/22
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
http://www.auroratheatre.org/ or (510) 843-4822