Shakespeare Theatre’s ‘Salome’: A chilling, erotic Biblical meditation

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s mesmerizing adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s controversial verse play is like a mesmerizing séance of voices from the past.

Nadine Malouf as Salomé in Shakespeare Theatre company's new production of Oscar Wilde's eponymous drama. (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2015 – The Shakespeare Theater Company’s current production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” transports you to a mystical period in Biblical antiquity where time seems to stand still. From the production’s opening slow march of players who emerge from the sparse grey trappings arrayed stage left, director Yael Farber creates a mesmerizing séance of voices and images that transport you to the inner sanctuary of a holy yet terrifying erotic palace of bondage and desire.

Jailers tormenting Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair as John the Baptist). (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)
Jailers tormenting Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair as John the Baptist) (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)

A rich tapestry of language delivered by this production’s international ensemble is the ultimate stylistic signature of native South African director Farber. In her feminist reinterpretation and reworking of Wilde’s 1896 drama she focuses even more closely on the cold and calculating step-daughter of King Herod Antipas, who plots the death of John the Baptist (Iokanaan in this drama) after he rejects her lascivious desires.

“I’m interested in telling a story that awakens the feminine narrative that asks the questions: At what point do we own the possibility of political action? And why is feminine political agency so often written out?” asks Farber, a multiple-award-winning director and playwright, whose adaptation and direction of the Shakespeare Theatre’s equally sensuous “Mies Julie” last season — based on Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” — earned her a Helen Hayes Award nomination for outstanding Visiting Production.

“After witnessing how audiences were riveted by “Mies Julie,” I knew that the company had to find an opportunity for Yael to create a production in Washington,” notes STC artistic director Michael Khan. “Salome promises to be another powerful theatrical experience, and as one of the originating theaters of thaw Women’s Voices Theater Festival, we are exceptionally proud that both Yael’s and Salome’s voices are being heard on our stage at this time.”

Farber’s “Salomé” certainly does deliver the goods in this production.

“Time runs dry,” says the voice of the Nameless Woman, a character portrayed by Irish visual artist Olwen Fouéré in a stark, gray contrast to the black flowing mane of Salomé. Fouéré’s monologues give voice to Salomé’s silent moments of torment and suffering in the inner sanctum of the imperial and religious powers, who themselves are unable to grasp Salomé’s personal and erotic power.

Salomé's Dance of the Seven Veils. (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company
Salomé’s Dance of the Seven Veils (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)

For all the feminist undercurrents that set the tone for this reimagined “Salomé,” however, it is Ramzi Choukair’s stunning and chilling portrayal of Iokanaan that animates this production’s core. His foreign language monologues (this production adds Arabic and Hebrew to the English), instantly interpreted by Yeshua the Madman (Richard Saudek), cast an apocalyptic pall over the Biblical story line that we thought we knew so well until heard in this radical adaptation of the original.

Choukair’s Iokanaan charges into the narrative fully formed as a raving, mad prophet clad only in a loincloth. He bares his soul to the powers that be and, in a scene not in Wilde’s original, confronts the imperial presence of Pontius Pilate, played here with unflinching directness by T. Ryder Smith. As a foil to the dithering Herod, Smith portrays Pilate as a calculating Roman general and governor who pits the interests of the Sanhedrin priests – the keepers of the ancient, sacred Hebrew codes and texts – against the voices of the populist Jewish rabble, an ancient proletariat that threatens the delicate balance of power between Imperial Rome and its restive province.

“A colonized people should learn that they are fortunate to keep their God alive,” says Pilate in a warning to these religious and political leaders who, along with the people, are on the verge of rebelling against the Roman tax burden.

An equally compelling element of this production is its constantly-revolving circular set. From a stark, gray beginning, it transforms seamlessly through a series of scene changes that move from Herod’s court to reveal Iokannan’s cistern-dungeon and the underground prison cells where Salomé visits the prophet. It’s a descent into a prison hell that eventually seals both characters’ fates, with Salomé herself ultimately facing the loss her all of her the worldly trappings and her life as well.

Salomé prepares to behead John the Baptist (Iokanaan) herself. (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)
Salomé prepares to behead John the Baptist (Iokanaan) herself. (Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Warning – this visceral performance includes full frontal nudity and water purification scenes that will remind at least some movie fans of Jennifer Beals’ “Flashdance” but without the leotards. But Nadine Malouf’s sensually riveting performance as the maddened Salomé, whose full powers are finally unleashed as she performs her legendary and provocative Dance of the Seven Veils, sets a sensational new theatrical standard.

It is Malouf’s climatic performance of this famous dance that sets a sensational new theatrical standard. She pulls all the visual elements of theatrical craftsmanship together as her Salomé weaves a sexually charged spell amidst the set’s royal but earthy backdrop, as highlighted by ceiling to floor veils that prophesy the inevitable yet horrific beheading of Iokanaan.

The ensemble cast does not have a single weak link in this seamless portrayal of royal moral decay and debauchery. From the haunting vocals of singers Tamar Ilana and Lubana Al Quntar, whose music and lyrics dramatically transition one scene to the next; to the evil presence of Ismael Kanater’s King Herod; to the key supporting roles of Jeff Hayenga and Shahar Isaac, who portray devious jail keepers Bar Giora and Annas. All reflect the worst of an ancient civilization where “Everyone is for sale,” perhaps foreshadowing our own times in the process.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Performances of “Salome” run through Nov. 8 at the Lansburgh Theater, 450 7th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004-2207.


Approximate running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, without intermission.

Note: Production contains nudity and graphic themes and is recommended for mature audiences.

Tickets, information and directions: Visit or call 202-547-3230.

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