With a stunning lyricism, South African director Yael Farber applies her formidable imaginative talents to a well-traveled biblical story and propels it on a revelatory new path. It’s the tale of Salome she transforms on the stage of the Lansburgh Theatre, in an adaptation that defiantly challenges what we think we know about the Judean princess who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
Why, Farber asks in her hypnotic, 90-minute “Salome,” set in Jerusalem at a time of Roman occupation and Jewish servitude, must we trust the conventional portrait of Salome as the dark instrument of a hideous revenge? Could there not be a more virtuous explanation for her terrible demand? Was there a political dimension to her action, one that in fact showed that she was an ally of the doomed prophet and thereby helped spur the Jewish people to insurrection?
What a provocative vision Farber entertains in this world-premiere production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. This is the group’s entry in the region’s hugely ambitious Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and the bold artistry on display not only validates the festival’s mission but also shows the topical capabilities of a classical company taking risks as it engages with a world-class theater artist. As she proved with “Mies Julie,” the racially charged version of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” set in the South African desert, that she brought to Shakespeare Theatre in 2013, Farber has a gift for infusing storytelling with a fiercely feminine sexual power.
Her radical “Salome,” performed by an international cast of 12, is a feast for the senses, an elegantly constructed spectacle of abundant invention and surprise. Set amid the holiest architecture of Jewish antiquity, Jerusalem’s Second Temple, “Salome” uses simple props and materials (tables, curtains, a ladder) and the rawest of natural elements and forms (sand, water, the beauty of the female body itself) to propose a theory of Salome (the ravishing Nadine Malouf) achieving an ennobling end.
The language here, mind you, is sometimes of the lulling variety intended to echo the patience-testing formality of old texts. The Jewish high priests (Yuval Boim and Jeff Hayenga) chant mystical hymns; tyrannical Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (a fine T. Ryder Smith) sputters about seizing Jewish treasure to pay for aqueducts, and impassioned Ioakanaan, aka John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair) speaks every one of his admonitory speeches in a foreign tongue, Arabic (and not the language of Jesus’s time, Aramaic). Still, the exotic music of the words, enhanced by the stirring percussive accompaniment by Mark Bennett, ratchets up the tension as the story advances to a brutal climax.
Farber’s “Salome” is partly her response to a previous dramatic rendering of the story, by Oscar Wilde, that was considered scandalous in its day but hewed to a less sympathetic treatment of the title character. Here, she’s the hero, a hypothesis abetted by the enduring ambiguities surrounding this daughter of King Herod. The acknowledgment of the central mystery of Salome is underlined right from the start in the Lansburgh: A woman in white robes materializes, to offer an account of the angry Pilate’s imprisonment and torture of Salome, after John the Baptist’s martyring execution. Called the Nameless Woman and played by the magisterial Olwen Fouere, she is the embodiment of Salome as an older woman and of the murkiness of Salome’s identity: She is never identified by name in the gospels.
The director/adapter seizes on this fuzziness for some intriguing poetic license. Not to give too much away, but the story relies on some contemporary concepts of victimhood and empowerment to explain Salome’s motives: why, for example, a daughter of privilege — and abuse, at the hands of Ismael Kanater’s despicable Herod — might find liberation in Ioakannan’s subversive advocacy of God over Rome. His death, secured famously by her, would be exactly the kind of incitement of his followers the Roman authorities are trying to avoid.
Salome’s epiphany is evoked thrillingly in a scene in the underground cell where she visits Choukair’s Ioakanaan — like her, cruelly abused by men in authority. Newly baptized by him, she sheds her worldly raiment jewel by jewel and garment by garment, until she’s naked before God, in lighting designer Donald Holder’s ecstatic illumination. It’s a moving act of purification. In Malouf’s confidence and stillness, she demonstrates Salome’s newfound resolve, her sense of higher purpose.
Any number of other striking moments spring from the visually driven creative minds of Farber and her team. Susan Hilferty’s costumes aptly serve the austere outlines of the text, and movement director Ami Shulman provides beautiful, dreamlike tableaux of the actors, moving as if through water, or posed on the turntable Hilferty places on her spare and agile set.
Such is the staying power of these impressive 90 minutes that you’re compelled at the end to wonder why it never occurred to you to consider the flip-side possibilities for so many stories like this, handed down through time. Theater is often at its most intriguing when it is offering answers to questions an audience never even thought to ask.
Salome, adapted and directed by Yael Farber. Movement, Ami Shulman; sets and costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Donald Holder; original music and sound, Mark Bennett; fight consulting, Robb Hunter. With Shahar Isaac, Richard Saudek, Lubana Al Quntar, Tamar Ilana. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $20-$118. Through Nov. 8 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.