PW’s ‘Salome’ modernizes Oscar Wilde’s classic play

Monday, April 17, 2006

Correction appended.

Mustafa Samdani’s interesting, if sometimes muddled, adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” challenges the norms of traditional theater. The Production Workshop performance is an attempt to present a radically “new” form of theater, what Samdani, a graduate student, calls “performative installations” – a purposefully ambiguous term that suggests the self-consciously elevated experimental nature of his play.

Samdani’s ambitious, though not completely realized, purpose is to create an innovative theatrical performance, one that transforms traditional theater into a more visceral experience with greater relevance for modern audiences. He said writers and directors who adapt classic works for the modern stage fail because they are too timid to confront the canonical nature of texts. By contrast, Samdani’s “Salome” is what he called a “confrontation with Wilde’s text.”

“Think of the original Oscar Wilde text as a program, and what I am setting up as a virus to that program,” he said. This is an apt description, as Samdani’s production figuratively hacks the text of Wilde’s play in a systematic deconstruction of its traditional literary form. Only three of the play’s original characters – Salome (Jessie Hopkins ’08), the Page (Ameer Ameeri ’08) and Herodias (Sarah Campen ’07) – are included in the performance. Samdani also added the character of the Arab Princess (Olivia Olsen ’08) to his production.

These characters confront and express themselves more through kinetic emotions than through the power of Wilde’s words or the drama of his plot. Relating to the audience through movement rather than sound, the play has no story line except for the mini-scene descriptions stated in the program, an unfortunate necessity that underscores how far Samdani’s adaptation deviates from Wilde’s meditations on the myth of Salome.

Though the actors are given little dialogue, they still perform well under limiting circumstances. Olsen as the Arab Princess and Ameeri as the Page are particularly impressive.

While acting in the play is commendable, Samdani’s movement away from words and linear plot creates an environment in which space, light and sound are more expressive than dialogue. In a sense, the real performance on the stage is the usage of light evocatively designed by Jono Spiro ’06 and the fusion of sounds effectively composed by Jon Roberts GS.

Samdani’s production has an attenuated connection to Wilde’s “Salome,” which was written as a traditional play, not a performative installation. In fact, the cuttingly witty Wilde might have associated a performative installation more with the setting-up of a plumbing appliance rather than the performance of theater. Even Samdani said, “You cannot come and leave knowing what the myth of Salome is, for that you go to a lecture or read the play.” As a result, Samdani’s adaptation is more a product of his considerable imagination than Wilde’s authorial voice.

The result of this conceit is that Wilde’s characters “are dead and their souls are lost in the space of this play” with only “a vague notion of once being alive in a play named ‘Salome,'” reads Samdani’s director’s note included in the program. Because these characters have “forgotten themselves and the story,” the audience is as “lost” as the characters themselves. The result is a radically anarchic, oftentimes muddled but nonetheless interesting experience, in which the virus of Samdani’s modern theater renders Wilde’s text as dead and as lost as the characters in Samdani’s adaptation.

Rather than imposing a purpose for his viewer with words, Samdani wants his audience “to experience the limits of presence and absence,” even if that means sleeping and missing his production in its entirety. Samdani does not mean to belittle theater but rather to challenge the conventional stage by presumably suggesting that we are all sleepwalkers, much like the characters in his adaptation.

But if a director says that one can “fall asleep and wake up five to 10 minutes later and it will not matter much,” one wonders what that signifies about the thematic value of his production and the artistic worth of the new theater he envisions. Samdani’s production demonstrates that it is easier to deconstruct a classic than it is to create an adapted work with timeless meaning. Still, Samdani’s production is a beneficial experience for those who enjoy experimental theater or simply need a nap.

“Salome” is showing tonight at 8 p.m. in the downstairs space of T.F. Green Hall.

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