Losing Their Head

Traditionally, summer is a down time for theater in Houston, as the big companies trot out easy fare while waiting for the fall and cooler weather to challenge their audiences. But this summer has been an exception. It's witnessed the birth of a small cache of underground theaters that have helped create a genuine underground theater scene, one in which the boundaries of contemporary playwriting are challenged, modern classics are reinvented and raw talent is given a venue for performance.

One notable member of this emerging group is the Free Range Arts Foundation, whose first production, Tamalalia!, stood out both in terms of new writing and raw talent. Written by and starring local actor/choreographer/writer Tamarie Cooper, Tamalalia! was vibrant, funny and ambitious. All of which makes the failure of Free Range's latest offering, Oscar Wilde's Salome, particularly disappointing. Little of what worked so well the first time around is evident in this second production, and though Cooper is again the featured performer, she can't save the gangly, hopelessly uneven work. It's hard to figure out why Free Range messed with their formula for success, but they did. As is too often the case with new directors, Salome director Jason Gray failed to read the theatrical tea leaves of his company's strengths, and ended up with an amateurish production.

The play that many critics believe to be his most autobiographical, Salome evidences Oscar Wilde's gift for drawing interesting, if petty, characters and creating a make-your-heart-beat-fast story line. Based on the biblical story of the Judean princess Salome, the play centers on the title character, who's so accustomed to being revered for her beauty and grace that she becomes enraged when the object of her affection, John the Baptiser (a.k.a. John the Baptist), refuses her advances and denigrates her character. Given its decidedly clear themes of lust, revenge, jealousy and the quest for power, it shouldn't be hard for a director to come up with a consistent tone for the play. But Gray not only failed to come up with any unifying attitude for his Salome, he also utterly failed his actors in terms of creating a lively revamping of the play. The performers tend to stand around in the same positions, but rather than recalling the graceful figures of a Grecian urn (which some of the mismatched production elements suggest), they look like they're waiting for some direction. The end result is like watching people at a bus stop -- possibly interesting if seen via time-lapse photography, but deadly dull in real time.

It's not always easy, of course, to distinguish bad acting from a lack of direction, but the many faults of this production, in particular the lackluster staging and the absence of an underlying theme, point inevitably toward the director. From the cosmetic elements of stage art such as costuming, lighting, props and set pieces to internal elements such as actors' motivation and the spark (or lack thereof) between key characters, Salome misses its mark. In an attempt to modernize the biblical story, some of the actors are outfitted in a variety of leather skirts and bondage pieces, some of which are created by sticking electrical tape on the actors' bare skin. Besides looking ridiculously uneven, the tape often sticks to the floor or to other costuming elements, creating a curious slurping sound when it strains to pull free. Lighting and set pieces follow no master design, and a moon that is referred to continuously in Wilde's poetic dialogue is portrayed by a flat disc covered in aluminum foil. It's more a source of comedy than reflection -- and in this case, Wilde's purpose wasn't comic. Neither, for that matter, was Gray's. But that's what he got.

Certainly, having unified production elements isn't a cardinal rule in theater, especially in low-budget, alternative fare, but everything in this production, and in Wilde's play itself, drives toward Salome's request to have John the Baptiser beheaded, and that deserves some element of solemnity. Even the veteran Cooper seems lost in her role, blending elements of a squeaky, petulant Betty Boop with sexually charged prowling. To her credit, there is palpable tension as she circles Jonathan Caouette as John the Baptist, praising his beautiful eyes, hair and lips. "Thy mouth is like a pomegranate, cut in twain with a knife of ivory," she purrs at him. Only half of the sexual tension equation works, though, because as John, Caouette is far more intent on a private symphony of twitching than he is on his dialogue or Salome's advances. It's reasonable to believe that being thrown into a dark pit, as John was, wreaks havoc on the character's nervous system, but Caouette's interpretation relies so heavily on a variety of jerking and eye-rolling that his interaction with the other actors is lost, and with that, an invaluable turning point in the plot evaporates.

Occasionally, there are sparks of independence in the cast, as is the case with Salome's lustful stepfather, Herod, played by DeWitt Gravink. Given little other choice, Gravink plays Herod as a comic, greedy fool who agrees to give his stepdaughter anything she wants should she agree to dance for him.

Still, Gravink's comedy is occasionally out of tune with his clairvoyant dialogue. "It's not wise to find symbolism in everything one sees," he intones while gazing upon the Reynolds Wrap moon. It's a small victory for this messy production that Gravink is ambitious enough to keep his motivations clear. The same spirit of artistic integrity comes through in Cooper's dance of the seven veils, the performance she gives Herod in order to guarantee that her request for the head of John the Baptiser is granted. Whirling around, her skirts and scarves flowing behind her, Cooper is wonderfully mysterious, and her eventual disrobing seems more an act of liberation than it does seduction, a deliciously clear reminder that the same charms that John rejected are the ones Salome uses to exact her revenge.

The most interesting element of this production is the live, original music, though it suffers from the same lack of direction as the rest of the production. Eerie chimes and a soulful violin provide an emotional context for events, though the music inexplicably wanders in and out of vaguely familiar leitmotifs. Of course, the argument could be made that all of these disjointed, highly unlikely elements indicate, as Free Range's press release says, "a post-modern fetish." But the effect on the audience is not one of intellectual invigoration. Instead, it is one of boredom and dissatisfaction. By the time Herod pleads with Salome to accept mountains of gems or half of his kingdom instead of John's severed head on a platter, the audience is divided between the early stages of napping and frequently checking timepieces.

As Salome makes painfully clear, the path for experimentation has its limits for small start-up theater companies. It's a lesson that Free Range might have learned from one of this summer's other alternative groups, the Absolute Theater, whose director, Steve Spurgat, started with a solid production of Beckett and Pinter, and then had to scurry to get the fledgling group back on track following a disastrous production of three new plays.

Shortly before he died, Wilde wrote, "I am in my usual state, drifting along. I wish I had ... concentration of purpose, and controlled intellect." Though the passage indicates that Wilde had lost faith in his mental precision, the notion that this was his "usual state" is one that most of his biographers would argue was false. In Wilde's case, the error in self-judgment isn't difficult to dismiss, given that the body of literature he left behind is both intellectually engaged and entertaining. Whether the Free Range Arts Foundation can similarly weather self-delusion about its strengths, though, is less certain. One hopes Free Range will recognize that its forte doesn't lie with producing the classics -- which require more work than simply applying post-modern theory onto a tightly woven, passionate play -- but instead on original works that come from a living writer, one who's fearless and insistent about imprinting his or her vision on a production.

Salome plays through September 14 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 867-9350.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Megan Halverson