Sewing Salome

Adapted by Nicole Halmos and Hillary Spector
Based on Oscar Wilde's Salome
Directed by Hillary Spector
Red Poppy Theater
Non union production (closed)
Review by David Mackler

Sewing Salome was presented as "a play in progress," and this version was only about an hour long. It's a mixed bag right now, and while there are serious problems, it also contained moments of great power.

Chief among the problems was that it trod an uneasy path between performance art and narrative, but neither came out the winner. Oscar Wilde's Salome has been through the adaptation ringer before (Ken Russell made a particularly ripe film version in 1988), and Bible stories are always a perfect for reinterpretation.

Director/adapter Hillary Spector has set the story in the early 1900s and peopled it with Italian immigrant women who sew with the intensity of necessity. But much work is needed on the script, as the milieu is clear but the intention is not. Scenes of great power are not always brought together coherently, and, to use the play's metaphor, the thread gets lost.

But the high points are very high. The scene where Mia (Sophia Skiles), the production's Salome figure, revealed her love in the confessional to Father Battista (Salvatore Garguilo), aka John the Baptist, was powerfully staged and well-acted, with the thrust and parry of the two adversaries revealing itself almost as a dance between them. There was also essentially a musical number where the women sewing were caught up in an almost rapturous feeling, sewing and swaying and giving a clear indication of the powerful connection between faith and pleasure. (They are sewing an altar cloth as an offering to Battista.)

Yet there was often distinct confusion about who these women were, and what they were doing. Knowledge of the story of Salome could only take the audience so far, without characterizing these people more. The director's conception is overwhelming, and while much of the stylized action was intriguing and even fascinating, it had limits. Perhaps the confusion was due to the abbreviated text, because some of the best performances benefited from clarity in the script. Skiles was powerful and believable as the vengeful Mia, gleeful in her passion and at the punishment she could exact, but clearly seething with fury. Nicole Halmos, the co-adapter, was phenomenal as Nucia (aka Herod), and the face-off between Nucia and Mia was biting - clear, concise, and riveting theater. Too much of the rest was unfocused, and consequently something of a muddle. Garguilo was one of the victims, as he had to spend most of his time in torment, which soon became repetitive.

The production was extraordinarily well lit (by Sebastian Paczynski), creating and augmenting moods, and superbly costumed (by Courtney McClain), giving the characters an anchor in the period. The set (uncredited) was simply a collection of chairs and a table or two with devotional candles. Music, liturgical and otherwise, was also very well-used, particularly with the last song being a take-off of Wilde's oft-quoted rumination regarding temptation, and the impossibility of his resisting it.

As part of the play's progress, a questionnaire was distributed to canvass audience reaction. But the services of a dramaturg might be helpful as well.

Also with Jeanine Bartel, Laylage Courie, Christy Meyer, Nella Vinci.
Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: N/A
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1999 David Mackler