Have you ever seen something and it struck you so unexpectedly, you have to actually let go emotionally before you can continue on? That’s exactly what happened to me when I saw Aurora Theatre Company’s World Premiere of “Salomania” by Mark Jackson. I LOVED IT!
In the program’s author’s note, Jackson ends by saying “The mystery as to how so many intelligent, prominent people could say and do so many stunningly outrageous things is indeed the question that grabbed a lasting hold of me…Ultimately, the play is less about its characters than it is about the anxious, hysterical society that shapes them.”
When you learn that this play is based on an actual account in history, one can only shake their head and think how incredibly sad it is that nothing has changed.
The story focuses on San Francisco dancer Maud Allen (Madeline H.D. Brown), who made a career for herself internationally by dancing the title role in Europe in Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” and creating her own dance of Salome. Editor of The Vigilante newspaper, Noel Pemberton-Billling (Mark Anderson Phillips) has tried to slander many people in Parliament, the Royal Family, and other well-to-do members of the community by saying they are a part of a secret black book which is owned by the German Secret Service. In this black book, were the names of 47,000 individuals who are deemed “sexual perverts.” After his efforts failed to work on those in the British ruling class, he focuses his intentions on Ms. Allen, who is known to have a fighting spirit. Maud sues Pemberton-Billing for libel and the case makes the front page of newspapers.
While Allen is the prosecution, it is she that is victimized and demoralized. Dredging up horrible scars from her past and accusing her of lesbianism and a German sympathizer, criminalized her in the eyes of “moral” British citizens even though there was no evidence provided. Pemberton-Billing’s main focus along with his little henchman American Harold S. Spencer (Anthony Nemirovsky) is to “bring to light” that his country is being infiltrated and degenerated by German sympathizers through homosexuality and consequently will lose the war because of this.
There’s a touching side story of a troop of soldiers and their experience on the battlefield, with each other, and how they deal with their situation. Throughout the play, the troops, after getting air raided upon, argues about which is the best chocolate supplier and why. They argue over the Allen case. Its a funny little look into their lives. How even in this intense environment, they do what they can to remain “normal.”
The script is a fast paced conversation that has funny sprinkled throughout so this particularly heavy situation doesn’t weigh down the audience. The complex sentences of Jackson’s writing give the actors chances to have fun with the lilt and cadence of his words. Parts of the play are actually quotes taken from the testimonies and other historical documents.
This play takes the audience on a gamut of emotions. Unless you’re a robot. I laughed. I got angry. I was horrified. I was amazed. I was moved. I laughed because while the subject matter is tough, there are still so many lines and scenes that are hilarious. A great example is the judge in the case, Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke) [See picture above]. Throughout the hearing and during questioning of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent), a former “friend” of Oscar Wilde, his quick side looks and “Don’t you dare” eyes and the quick wit are highly memorable. Although to be fair, Allen’s quick quips to Pemberton-Billing were funny as well. What got me angry was that Allen’s case fell apart because of the accusation of lesbianism and that the justice she sought would become her undoing, much like Oscar Wilde. I was horrified with the death of her brother. He was hanged because he was found with two dead girls. In his sad sad speech he declares his innocence and how sorry he was that they couldn’t see that. Then abruptly he is hanged. And while the action is insanely simple, the contrast of this beautiful moment cut of by jarring lights and noise get maximum impact. I’ll talk about amazed in a sec. I was moved by the beauty in which actor Kevin Clark transitions from Judge Darling to Soldier, to Oscar Wilde in a span of two minutes. Each change seemed to have it’s own “quirks” but it wasn’t until he became Wilde that the biggest one hit. I was luckily sitting literally 2 feet away from him and while he had his back toward me, I could tell something was going to happen.
And it was such a small thing at first. After the Soldier. He pulled out his comb and slowly combed his hair back. He wasn’t moving like this in the change from Judge to Soldier. Then, he reached out
his hand to the chair he was once sitting on. It was trembling. Wilde died of cerebral meningitis when he was 46. As he slowly lifted the seat of the chair and took out a white jacket, Clarke began to hunch over slightly and with shaking hands placed his hat on with an artistic tilt. Next, he slowly made his way to the table that was center stage upon which sat a lone wine glass and bottle. His shuffling feet were the only noise as the audience sat spellbound. That alone was one of my favorite moments in the play. It is not something that can be written. It is just done.
In the scene that followed, Maud and Oscar talk about their first meeting, the pointlessness of war and how it will always be around and the lack of acceptance of the love of beauty. It is such a beautiful and well-written scene, I could feel the tears welling up.
I don’t want to give away the ending!! But…but…
okay, here is what I will say. I thought the end was so symbolically beautiful and so perfect for an Oscar Wilde inspired play that after the show I had to sit in my car and cry for about 10 minutes before I could drive back home.
What made me amazed about this production was how relevant it is. Criminalization of LGBT people are still things that happen around the world. In recent years, Cece McDonald, an African American transgender woman and fashion design student, and some friends, while walking down the street in Minneapolis, were attacked by people who were yelling racial and homophobic slurs. Someone broke a glass in her face and it left a gash that required 11 stitches. A fight broke out and a man with a swastika tattoo was stabbed and died. McDonald was charged with 2 counts of murder. The prosecution says that the hate speech that happened before the fight is irrelevant. McDonald is currently serving 4 years in a men’s prison even though she identifies as a woman. Recently, though, she has pled guilty to lowered charges of negligent manslaughter. Still f-ing ridiculous!
Stories like this happen all the time. There’s another story about a Mexican-American woman who is facing the death sentence because the lawyers, after telling the jury that because she’s a fiery Mexican and “hard core lesbian” due to the fact that a guy hit on her enraged her so much she had to kill him. They then brought in 10 people who simply confirmed that she was a lesbian.
My amazement turned into sadness when I thought more about this aspect of the show. I guess it will never get better. Let’s only hope that it doesn’t get worse.
If you are interested in reading more about these stories, check out Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People of the United States.
But back to the play…
Can I just say how much I loved the costumes?? Callie Floor is amazing. If you look at the picture at the start of this post, look at Vincent’s pants. Those are the pants he uses as a Soldier. Everyone except for Brown has this same costume piece and only switch out the jackets and vests. However, when you get a look at the whole outfit, I think it is remarkably fashionable. Maybe it is just me and my penchant for costumes. I would totally wear that look. The gowns are lovely and look so elegant, which they should as they are ladies of high society. I will have to say and I know I shouldn’t, but nothing is ever perfect… On the back of one of Nemirovsky’s striped jacket, the panels aren’t arranged properly. I was always told that the stripes should always make a “V” when it hits the center seam. That’s the only thing that’s amiss with the costumes. Practically nothing.
The set, created by Nina Ball, was multi functional and works so well in the theatre’s small stage area. I loved the scenes with the actor propelled turntable. It felt like I was watching a movie with the profiles always changing in those scenes like a circling camera shot.
One thing I did want to see more of…When Allen is dancing it is lovely, but what I wanted to see more of was the feeling on her face and was there a difference in the little pieces she did or were they all part of the same single number that made her famous. Again, just a little nit picky thing. I’ll bet because of my seat, she could have been doing this, but I only saw her back.
The acting was superb even with the two or three words that were stumbled over. Brown, who looks like she stepped out of the silent era silver screen, is heartbreaking as Allen. Clarke is stellar as Judge Darling and Oscar Wilde. Alex Moggridge is completely charming as both Allen’s lawyer, Ellis Williams Hume-Williams and the Soldier who gets leave. Anthony Nemirovsky played the upbeat, yet dangerous American with a smile that didn’t let you know that there was some crazy stew boiling inside. The super-talented Mark Anderson Phillips is incredible as he has the hardest job. His Pemberton-Billing is a despicable character, yet as Allen’s doomed brother Theo Durant, he draws out your compassion almost in the same minute. Marilee Talkington was a true chameleon. She had the most characters and all of them were so distinctly different that one could easily see her do well in a one woman show! Liam Vincent, while quiet as a soldier most of Act 1, really packed a wallop as Lord Douglas. His perfectly timed entrance and his quick stiff jibes at the judge were a wonderful contrast to his moving speech about dredging up one’s past. Easily one of the most memorable moments of the play.
You will like this play. If it doesn’t move you emotionally (because you are a robot) you will like the thought provoking aspect of it.
The Aurora Theatre Company does it once again! 5 of the biggest happy actors ever!