Oscar Wilde’s Salome Laden with Melodrama

Sarah Westbrook, Staff Writer

The Oberlin Student Theater Association’s production of Salome, directed by College junior Lydia Rice last weekend in Wilder Main, told a story of lust and betrayal that, despite its emotional peaks and valleys, ultimately failed to enrapture its audience.

Oscar Wilde’s one-act play, originally written in French in 1891, depicts the biblical story of King Herod (College junior Matt Storrs), who marries the wife of his late brother and lusts after her daughter Salome. Salome, played by College junior Amanda Palmer, has become enamored with the prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist), played by College senior Joshua Selesnick. He wants nothing to do with her, however, which incites her passion to rage. Herod is a man of insatiable appetites, and in a moment of desperation, he offers Salome anything worth up to half of his kingdom if only she will dance for him. Salome performs the Dance of the Seven Veils in return for the head of Jokanaan.

Audience members were greeted in the theater by the somber gaze of Naaman, played by College sophomore Edmund Metzold. He sat in his executioner’s hood for most of the play, staring into the darkness of Wilder Main. Metzold went 70 minutes without a single line; this eerie silence and intense stare is echoed in the play’s dialogue. Salome is a play obsessed with the dangers of looking and what it means to see or be seen. This anxiety haunted every character, from the admonitions of Herod’s wife Herodias (College sophomore Christine Walden) that Herod must not look at her daughter to the tragic end when Salome clutches the head of Jokanaan and bemoans the fact that he never truly saw her.

The play begins with two pages standing guard outside the palace, one of them continually peering over at Salome, commenting on her beautiful white face. When Salome enters, she is fascinated by the moon’s cold, white loveliness, and it becomes clear that the viewer is meant to compare Salome’s seductive nature with that of the moon. She is fashioned as a kind of femme fatale accustomed to exercising power over men — until she is spurned by Jokanaan.

The play’s standout moments were delivered by the pairings of Selesnick and Palmer and Herod and Herodias. When Salome first meets Jokanaan, she approaches him in a series of tense encounters, nearly touching him as she fawns over a particular part of his body, only to be rebuked by him, at first verbally and then physically. Audience members’ suspense was palpable as they watched Salome come within inches of touching him and then jumped at Jokanaan’s sharp bark. Selesnick rendered his version of the prophet well for the short time he was on stage, sporting a crazed glint in his eye and delivering his lines with relish.

Herodias’ character helped to balance out Storr’s melodramatic Herod. Her disdainful affect and biting quips were a relief amid the occasionally overacted part of her husband, verbose and pompous as the role may have been.

The play’s weaknesses were not limited to the excessively affected acting. Although the cast and crew made a sincere attempt, the performance failed to captivate the audience. It was also undermined by anachronistic costuming — a strange clash of Roman and medieval times — and the confusing multiple parts played by College junior Geneva Tatem and College first-year Maggie Bussard. Both actresses had to switch characters so quickly, sometimes with only the addition of a scarf or a change in accent, that it was hard to focus on the plot.

“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death,” Salome laments as the play closes. However, the great mystery for viewers was how to react to a performance that should have been charged by the power of its mythic status, but instead was devoid of much emotional impact ultimately unable to convince the audience of its own significance.