The legendary dance of the seven veils made Maud Allan famous. It also made her a scarlet woman.
The San Francisco pianist-turned-dancer became the toast of Europe in the early 1900s as the "Salome dancer." Daring playwright/director Mark Jackson stumbled upon her story while working on Oscar Wilde's "Salome" at the Aurora Theatre Company back in 2006.
Now he riffs on the rise and fall of this controversial artist, whose career was destroyed by accusations of being part of the "cult of the clitoris" in "Salomania." In this wildly imaginative if uneven world premiere, Jackson muses on the theme of freedom, sexual and artistic, in a world desperate to pin all its troubles on scapegoats.
Jackson ("Metamorphosis," "Faust") lives up to his reputation for bracing ideas and balletic stage pictures here. He cleverly juxtaposes Allan's ludicrous trial with the carnage of life in the trenches during World War I. Nina Ball's artful set lets the antics of the stage and the butchery of the battlefield bleed into each other in a collage of chaos.
As in "God's Plot," which was a hit at Shotgun Players last year, Jackson uses the past to illuminate unsettling aspects of the present, including the spectacle of war mongering. But too often in "Salomania," the force of the narrative gets bogged down in turgid courtroom drama.
Allan (Madeline H.D. Brown) apparently was a mediocre dancer; however, she was the Lady Gaga of her age, a gaudy celebrity whose
Her brassy sexuality made her an easy target for Noel Pemberton-Billing (Mark Anderson Phillips), a pompous member of British Parliament who denounced her as a lesbian, a sadist and a German conspirator. He secretly hoped to rile up the populace in the time of war. When Allan sued Pemberton-Billing for libel, she stirred up a media frenzy that captivated the continent and forever tarnished her stardom with scandal.
Alas, the trial itself, though certainly lurid, is not suspenseful enough to sustain a long re-enactment. Despite masterful performances from Anderson Phillips, Alex Moggridge (Allan's attorney) and Kevin Clarke (the judge), the twists and turns of the legal system and its pronouncements of indecency grow repetitive.
For her part, Allan remains a scantily clad enigma bedecked in pearls. The femme fatale always seems to be a witness to her story instead of an active participant. Her passivity creates some of the staging's static patches.
By far the most compelling figures here are the passers-by, such as the shellshocked soldier on leave (Moggridge again) and the widow (Marilee Talkington) he chats up, or the ghost of Wilde (a mesmerizing turn by Clarke) haunting the afterlife in a tavern. Jackson taps into such intimacy in these small asides that it's a letdown when the action shifts back to the case at hand.
The most intriguing echoes come in the last scenes. Jackson explores the affinity between Allan and Wilde, both of whom were denounced by Lord Alfred Douglas (a tart Liam Vincent). Allan may have slipped into obscurity over time, but Wilde's mystique grows more potent with each passing year.
Certainly, art is still under fire on numerous fronts. If Jackson can find a way to mine that subtext more effectively, the play would have more lasting allure.
By Mark Jackson
Through: July 22
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $30-$48, 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org