Aurora Theatre Company’s “Salomania” deftly explores Maud Allan’s sensationalized 1918 libel trial with many modern day parallels, extended through July 29, 2012
My introduction to the acclaimed Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley came last Wednesday when I attended Salomania by playwright and director Mark Jackson. The play had its world premiere on June 15, 2012 and has been so popular that its run was extended through Sunday, July 29, 2012. Aurora has been on my radar for some time. I’ve admired the bold artwork on their posters and postcards. Having interviewed two graphic artists this year—Paul Davis and Michael Schawb—who specialize in posters, I’ve come to appreciate the complexity of communicating a visual message that causes people to take note. Aurora does that. Its Salomania poster, created by Daniel Olmstead, features a graceful dancer in silhouette against an exploding blue field that is dominated by a squadron of black fighter planes—imparting feelings of lightness about to be overshadowed by ominous doom. That fits the play to a T.
Salomania explores the scandalous libel suit that the celebrated dancer Maud Allan filed against arch conservative British MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing in 1918, during the bleaker days of WWI. Pemberton-Billing’s newspaper, “TheVigilante,” had run a highly-sensationalist article, “The Cult of the Clitoris,” accusing her of being a lesbian, sadist, and German sympathizer. His evidence? She had played the title role in a private production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which was banned in England at the time. Allan, a San Francisco native, was a dancer who took Europe by storm in the early 1900’s with her version of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which she called “The Vision of Salomé.” She became notoriously known as “The Salomé Dancer.” The article was bate, meant to goad Allan into filing a libel suit so that Billing and his American cohort, Harold Spencer, could whip up the populace by disclosing the contents of a spurious “Black Book” that claimed that 47,000 leading British citizens were perverts and were being blackmailed into aiding Germany and thereby prolonging the war. While soldiers continued to fight and die in the mud of France, people back home read the latest on the salacious events of the trial. “How could I resist making a play about that?” said Mark Jackson.
Like most good stories, it came to Jackson unexpectedly. In the course of researching Aurora’s acclaimed 2006 production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, he came across the transcripts of the libel trial and found an eager supporter in Aurora’s Artistic Director, Tom Ross, with whom he had previously worked. Ross commissioned the play.
Salomania is challenging, engrossing, sobering and, at times, delightful. It’s as much about the past as it about today too. The story resonates with issues that have proved timeless—lack of good judgment in the face of blatant media manipulation, freedom of expression, homophobia, and intolerance.
Madeline H.D. Brown sublimely embodies Maud Allan, at times she appears to dance on air as she wafts across the stage exuding sensuality, strength, intelligence and rolling with the emotional punches she is dealt. Costume designer Callie Floor is to be commended for creating stunning replicas of Allan’s original daring and diaphanous costumes and the remarkable period costumes that the other characters wear. Mark Anderson Phillips brings the homophobic Pemberton-Billing to life, while Kevin Clarke humorously portrays the effeminate Judge Darling and the aged and frail Oscar Wilde.
The most memorable scenes are two intimate vignettes in which the characters divulge their dreams and dashed hopes and emotionally involve us in their inner world. Marilee Talkington shines as a nameless girl in bar, recently widowed, who is sharing an evening and a pint with a soldier, played by Alex Moggridge. (Talkington also doubles as Maud Allan’s friend and lover, Margot Asquith.) And towards the play’s end, I couldn’t get enough of Kevin Clarke as an aged Oscar Wilde in conversation with the defeated Maud Adams.
There’s enough rich material here for several plays: the courtroom and combat scenes are acted with flair and poignancy and the behind-the-scenes discussions at the newspaper fascinating, but they all remain largely on the surface. This would be countered if we came away with the feeling that we had a grip on the real Maud Allan. As it stands, we just don’t know enough about her inner world to get a solid handle on who she really was deep inside. This is critical given Allan’s lawsuit sought to address her tarnished public image and who and what she wasn’t. If Jackson can deliver more Maud, he’ll have a play with real lasting power.
Run-time: Two hours and thirty-five minutes
Cast: Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Adams; Mark Anderson Phillips is Noel Pemberton-Billing, Alex Moggridge is Ellis William Hume-Williams; Liam Vincent is Lord Alfred Douglas; Anthony Nemirovsky is The Honorable Justice Wills; Marilee Talkington is Margot Asquith; and Kevin Clarke is Oscar Wilde.
Production Team: Written and Directed by Mark Jackson; Choreography by Chris Black; Scenery by Nina Ball; Costumes by Callie Floor; Lighting by Heather Basarab; Sound by Matt Stines; Props by Mia Baxter.
WRITER AND DIRECTOR MARK JACKSON BEHIND THE SCENES OF “SALOMANIA” AT AURORA THEATRE COMPANY
Details: For mature audiences only. Salomania runs through Sunday July 29, 2012 with performances on Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 2 PM and 7 PM; Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 8 PM; Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 8PM; and Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 2 PM. The Aurora Theatre Company is located at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. There are several parking garages near the theatre. Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, accessible via Center Street, has $3 parking with a validated theatre ticket. (Stamp is in the theatre lobby.) Tickets: $30-$48.
For more information, or to purchase tickets: www.auroratheatre.org or phone (510) 843-4822.