I knew I was in for an intimate performance when I walked into the lobby of The Flea Theater and everyone seemed to know each other. The audience was made up mostly of women in breezy summer sundresses who greeted each other with hugs and excited cries of “Hi! How are you?!” As we were ushered into the blackbox theater by the extremely gracious theater staff and settled into the mostly filled seats, my brother and I exchanged glances. I had read Oscar Wilde’s Salome in high school in French, but remembered little of the plot and couldn’t imagine how it would be staged. My brother, a self-professed theater geek, had never even heard of the play. But one thing was certain: if the white-faced men frozen at the sides of the stage were anything to go by, this play was going to be super creepy.
Salome is set in the court of King Herod, and follows the transformation of Princess Salome (Karina Fernicola-Ikezoe), who is caught between her desire for purity and her growing lust for the prophet Iokanaan (more commonly known as John the Baptist), whom Herod (Alessio Bordoni) has imprisoned. To further complicate matters, Salome must also fend off Herod’s growing interest in her, despite the fact that Herod is married to his brother’s widow and Salome’s mother, Herodias (Tatyana Kot). As Iokanaan (Chris Ryan) continues to refuse Salome’s advances, she becomes frustrated and agrees to dance for Herod in exchange for an unnamed reward, which is later revealed to be Iokanaan’s head on a silver charger.
Though the play was written in French and performed in English, the stylistic choices reminded me vaguely of Japanese Noh theater. The faces of all the actors (excluding Yokkanahan) were painted white, making their every expression seem exaggerated and mask-like. The dialogue was slowed-down and spoken in an anguished monotone, lending the words a distinctly Biblical rhythm and imbuing the wistful moon-gazing and numerous repeated lines with poignancy. The costumes and sets were kept simple, and the scenery consisted only of a ream of cheesecloth draped at the back of the stage, with increasingly sinister backdrops projected onto the scrim. These directorial decisions emphasized the Wildean melodrama of the piece and focused the attention of the audience on the actors and on the emotions of the characters.
Of the actors, I was most impressed by Fernicola-Ikezoe’s portrayal of Salome. Though it would have been easy to play Salome as insane, evil, schizophrenic, or remorseless, in this performance I saw her as deeply conflicted and almost sympathetic in her most confused or desperate moments. My brother preferred Bordoni’s Herod, who was wildly expressive despite the confines of his “mask” and conscripted speech pattern. Among the ensemble, Olgierd Minkiewicz and Kevin Whittinghill stood out for their portrayals of the lovesick young Syrian and the anxious first soldier, respectively. Several accents, Italian, Kazakhstan, and Polish among them, were detectable in the cast, but did not detract at all from the play.
Though I was lucky enough to catch the performance on its penultimate night, Black Moon Theatre Company has since ended its production of Salome, and is embarking on a run of The Maids by Jean Genet in Bergen, Norway. The Flea is also putting on #serials@theflea: cycle 3 — a weekly late night play competition with live music and free beer. Theatre-goers looking for an innovative off-off-Broadway experience should definitely add these performances to their iCals.
The Flea Theater, 41 White St (btwn Broadway and Church streets). 212-352-3101. 6/A/C/E/N/Q/R/J/M/Z to Canal St, 1 to Franklin St.
- Claire Heyison