SALOMANIA BLENDS HISTORY WITH GREAT THEATER
The year is 1918 and the world is fraught with an unimaginable war. Only a doctor or a pervert knows what a clitoris is. For anyone else during this era known for its hypocrisy, such knowledge meant scandal that could and did blast lives. In Aurora Theatre Company’s Salomania, that rock-solid reality is woven into an engrossing true historical story, one which explores media sensationalism and social hysteria. With the spectacular theatricality of playwright Mark Jackson’s delicate, humorous and beautifully expressive direction, the scandal-drenched story of Maud Allen culminates into a fascinating treat.
The story may have been outrageous for its time, but you don’t have to look far to spot modern parallels. The final production of Aurora’s 20th season, Salomania tells the story of classical-pianist-turned-exotic-dancer Maud Allan and her sensational but doomed 1918 libel suit against rabidly conservative British Parliamentarian Noel Pemberton-Billing, publisher of the political journal The Vigilante. A homophobic conspiracy theorist, Pemberton-Billing had an irresistible yen to hand salacious tidbits to readers mired down in World War I. He published an article called “The Cult of the Clitoris,” which implied that Allan was a lesbian associate of German wartime conspirators. His trump cards against Allan were many: Wearing little more than pearls, Maud Allan made her name performing “Dance of the Seven Veils” in private performances; her notorious version of the dance was loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a play still banned in England; she had a carefully guarded family secret about her brother; and most damning of all, Allan had a purported black book listing tens of thousands of alleged British perverts. Her libel suit against Pemberton-Billing eerily parallels that of Oscar Wilde’s own trials in 1895.
The opening act tossed some challenges, including the deciphering of fast-paced, era-appropriate, spot-on, English-accented dialogue (dialect coach Lisa Anne Porter), and keeping focus through lengthy exposition (the discussion comparing favorite chocolates becomes powerfully obvious later). But I would tell viewers to hold on and be in discovery with this obscure but charged story. Allow yourself to delight in its rich symbolism and the sheer theatricality of it all.
Madeline H.D. Brown almost eerily channels Maud Allen, from her striking physical resemblance to how gracefully she wears costume designer Callie Floor’s recreation of Maud’s daring signature pearl costume. Fluidly executing Chris Black’s sensuous choreography, Ms. Brown impressively masters the range of emotions surely felt by the real Maud Allan: from self-assurance in the face of pompous court officials to agony over her beloved brother’s murder conviction, she brings each moment to quivering reality.
Other actors play a multitude of roles. Their range of ability – character traits, accents and quick (sometimes onstage) costume changes – is made all the more amazing because they uncannily bear a resemblance to the real-life people they portray.
Mark Anderson Phillips embodies Pemberton-Billing’s fanatical belief in evil frighteningly well, but then does a powerful about-face in a breathtaking portrayal of Maud’s doomed brother Theo. Kevin Clarke inarguably nails the hypocrisy of the times as the florid-faced, effeminate Judge Darling, but then has some mesmerizing moments as a frail, aging Oscar Wilde. Anthony Nemirovsky is impeccable as both The Vigilante’s assistant editor Harold Spencer and a quintessential American in wartime England. Liam Vincent rivets as a defense witness but also shines without a word as a bartender who serves a disenchanted soldier who finds a wartime oasis over a pint with a world-weary girl. Beautifully playing that lonely-heart girl is Marilee Tarkington, who also intrigues as Maud Allan’s close friend (yes, that’s a euphemism) Margot Asquith, and shines as Maud’s mother, who must face the tragic turns that her children’s lives take. Rounding out a superlative cast is Alex Moggridge, who is strongly sympathetic as Sir Hume-Williams, Maud Allan’s counsel.
Matt Stines’ sound design punctuates scene changes with strident cracks like gunfire, accompanied by Heather Basarab’s flashes of light; together, their design reinforced social hysteria just as forcefully as shells pummeling the trenches. It is a rare occasion when a lighting designer elicits emotion, but when Basarab spotlights poignant moments, the effect is heartbreaking. Ms. Floor’s authentic costumes deliciously sketch the era, and set designer Nina Ball’s creative use of only a table and a chair or two are reminiscent of the scarcity during a war. The entire design team never lets us forget where and when the play takes place.
Salomania is also one of those rare instances when a playwright directs his own material and manages to plumb extra layers from the crisp dialogue with the use of beautiful symbolism and glorious stage pictures, most notably a pearl-clad Maud Allan mournfully pacing the trenches, and soldiers who are frozen by birdsong. Jackson’s creative direction does not disappoint because he crystallizes moments and characters, leaving no doubt of both motivation from his actors and sense of place from his entire team, from the trenches to a courtroom to a cafe.
Despite the play’s powerful drama, no small part of its plentiful humor lies in our incredulity as we, from our cozy contemporary enlightenment, gape at the mindset that made homosexuality the most base of social ills – the same mentality that made men so ignorant of their own wives’ physicality, let alone their sexuality. Thank goodness times have changed – or, given what we now deem politically incorrect and therefore socially untouchable, have they?
photos by David Allen
Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley
scheduled to end on July 22, 2012 EXTENDED to July 29, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.auroratheatre.org