Irina Koval, left, and Joseph Carlson in Oscar Wilde's “Salome.” (Mason Summers)

Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play “Salome,” at once poetic, lurid and dreamlike, lends itself to Scena Theatre’s almost campy staging at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Even before it begins, the show grabs the audience’s attention with improbable and striking atmospherics. Music of the Roaring Twenties jangles from the speakers, while designer Michael C. Stepowany’s black-and-white set, with its long table and matching chairs, looks like a dais awaiting guests at a formal gala. A backdrop of blue sky and clouds hangs behind it. Right away, one wonders what director Robert McNamara is up to.

When the ensemble walks on the stage in studied slow motion, it is a Greek chorus, but the members are arrayed in sparkling flapper gowns and snazzy tuxes by costume designer Alisa Mandel. Yet we’re still in the Judean court of Herod (Brian Hemmingsen). The courtiers gossip about his beautiful stepdaughter, Salome (Irina Koval), and snicker at the ravings of his prisoner, Jokanaan (Joseph Carlson), a.k.a. John the Baptist. The proclaimed prophet languishes at the bottom of a cistern, shouting about God and the incestuous marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife, Herodias (Rena Cherry Brown), Salome’s mother.

Koval’s Salome lolls off to the side, a bored beauty languidly discovering her power over men. She becomes fascinated by Jokanaan, who shows no interest in her. She demands that the prisoner be brought up so she can see him, but he refuses to look at her, even as she tells the holy man that she is “amorous of thy body.” The young Syrian soldier (Tony Strowd) in Herod’s army who accedes to Salome’s wishes and brings Jokanaan to her kills himself in shame.

In a deliciously larger-than-life performance, Hemmingsen’s Herod vibrates with inappropriate longing for Salome. He begs her to dance for him — offers her half his kingdom and all his jewels. But she demands only one thing — the head of Jokanaan on a silver platter. This perverse wish frightens Herod. What if Jokanaan is a real prophet?

When such bad omens invade his consciousness, Herod zones out, amid precipitous dips in Marianne Meadows’s elegant lighting and ominous, atonal psycho-
music from sound designer and composer Chris Kurtz. When Herod snaps back to reality and resumes ogling his stepdaughter, Brown’s Herodias chides and fumes at her husband to fine comic effect.

Leading up to the moment of Salome’s dance, McNamara’s surreal staging goes swimmingly. The studied movements and elevated oratory don’t wear thin. The climactic moment of Salome’s dance, however, is another story. The taking off, and later the putting on, of those fabled seven veils occurs merely in gestures mimed by Koval. Although backed with Kurtz’s mind-bending music, the dance lacks the bravado of the rest of the production, which briefly drains some of its power.

A veteran of Synetic Theater’s blend of dance and athleticism, Koval has alluring moves and presence, but her muted interpretation of the title role sits at too great a distance from director McNamara’s vision.

By contrast, Carlson’s Jokanaan brings a wild-eyed unpredictability to the stage, with his tangle of matted hair and the chalky skin of dungeon life, he bellows prophecy and judgment unto hoarseness. His haunting, crouched presence in a square of light near the edge of the stage parallels Hemmingsen’s comically agitated Herod as the second exclamation point in this unusual and mostly satisfying show.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.


by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Robert McNamara. Runs 1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission. With Armand Sindoni, Michael Miyazaki, Kim Curtis, Tom Byrne, Renata Loman, Caroline Wolfson and Karin Rosnizeck. Presented through Aug. 18 by Scena Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab Theatre II, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit