When Patrick told me Mark Jackson's Salomania was one of the best things he's seen at the Aurora Theatre my first question was did the mania in the title refer to something Wilde or Pasolini's film? I would be interested in the former but don't think I could stomach a play based on the latter. Receiving the answer I hoped to hear (and should have expected given the source), I bought some tickets. It was only later I remembered how often our opinions diverge on theater.
A super-condensed plot outline: American dancer/performer Maud Adams finds herself in trouble with the English courts for portraying Oscar Wilde's Salome and being a member of something called "The Cult of the Clitoris." She and the other 47,000 degenerate cult members are seen as the gravest societal danger facing European society in the aftermath of the Great War by a certain blue-nosed editor named Noel Pemberton-Billing. It's an earlier 20th century version of the People vs. Larry Flynt, all based on real-life people and events.
The program for Salomania has a note from Mark Jackson where he writes:
What those involved in the particular events dramatized here felt inside, and much with regard to their true motives, remains a mystery about which one is free to speculate...
The mystery as to how so many intelligent , prominent people could say and do many stunningly outrageous things is indeed the question that grabbed a lasting hold of me when I first encountered this story. Not having an answer baffled and compelled me. It is my hope that the play will do the same for those who encounter it. Ultimately the play is less about its characters than it is the anxious, hysterical society that shapes them.
And that indeed could be a capsule review of his play. If you read his statement casually the first time, and I admit I did, you might be under the impression the playwright was interested in creating his own take on what those mystery motives actually might have been. You might think he'd provide an interpretation of what initially baffled and compelled him and reveal it to the audience. You might think he might want to create a portrait of who these people were who said and did these outrageous things- or at least create a fantasy about their real identities and motivations.
But on re-reading it I realized he wasn't interested in that at all. What he wanted the play to do was leave the audience as baffled and compelled as he was. Well, he hit .500 on that score. I was baffled by the fact that we spent 2 1/2 hours with these characters and even after all that time knew almost absolutely nothing about who they were and what motivated them. But I don't find that to be compelling theater, and the idea that one can experience a society, anxious or not, via the unexplained, unexamined actions of individuals living within it is just not a very interesting idea. It's like looking at a photograph of a street corner to understand the geography and character of an entire metropolis.
There are some excellent scenes, and some very well-written dialogue, but in the end they don't add up to more than parts of an unsatisfying, incomplete whole. The actors are all first rate, especially Madeleine H.D. Brown as Maud Allan (she strikingly resembles the woman she's portraying) and Kevin Clarke in a couple of roles (he is hilarious as Judge Darling). A scene which takes place in a bar between Marilee Talkington and Alex Moggridge is so well executed I wish it was in another play so we could learn what became of their characters. But Jackson leaves us in ignorance of his characters futures and pasts (except inevitable death), and offers hardly a clue as to what's really going on in their minds at the moments depicted in the play. It's a pity there isn't more to Salomania, because Jackson's certainly right about the premise being compelling. The theme of what motivates people to say and do outrageous things is an increasingly relevant topic in our contemporary political climate, but those motivations are never explored here. The play reflects our own anxious, hysterical society as much as the one depicted on stage- titillation and innuendo rule, and no one is much interested in why a woman would take her clothes off, only in that she did.
Hopefully we'll have Patrick's take on it soon.
Salomania runs at the Aurora through July 29.