And Then There’s Maud

San Francisco playwright/director Mark Jackson started a fruitful relationship with Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company with his 2006 production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. While Shotgun Players across town has premiered many of Jackson’s own works as a writer/director, his work with Aurora up till now has been strictly as a director, focused on inventive stagings of classics such as August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and a new adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Now Aurora has commissioned a new play that goes right back to Salome with Salomania, about onetime San Franciscan dancer Maud Allan.

Kevin Clarke, Madeline H.D. Brown, and Mark Anderson Phillips in Salomania. Photo by David Allen.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Allan became famous—and in some circles, infamous—for her show Vision of Salomé, based on Wilde’s play. In particular her interpretation of Salome’s dance of the seven veils became notorious. In 1918, British Parliament member Noel Pemberton-Billing, editor of the journal The Vigilante, published an article titled “The Cult of the Clitoris,” accusing Allan of being part of a World War I German conspiracy to sabotage wartime morale by luring Britons into perversion. Allan sued Billing for libel, giving him just the platform he wanted—a celebrity trial—to voice his beliefs that many public figures and government ministers were part of a secret “Black Book” listing 47,000 prominent sexual perverts acting as German agents in Britain. And that’s not even getting into the scandal that had haunted Allan’s family back in San Francisco, in which her brother was convicted of a brutal murder, that led her to change her last name from Durrant and may have caused her to give up music (she was trained as a classical pianist) and become a self-taught dancer.

This is all a gold mine for drama, and Jackson takes it on with relish in Salomania, an often stunning patchwork of scenes around the libel trial and the Great War that resonate deeply even when you’re not quite sure what all the bits have to do with each other. Aurora’s world premiere production is blessed with a superb cast that all plays multiple roles, with the exception of the omnipresent central figure of Maud Allan.

Madeline H.D. Brown makes a luminous Maud, graceful and urbane, haunted and magnetic. Choreographed by Chris Black, her dances don’t amount to much, just rhythmic strolling and arm waving. I couldn’t say how faithful they are to Allan’s own choreography—she was untrained, after all—but it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about with the new art form she professes to have brought to Europe (a curious claim that goes unexamined, as Jackson isn’t particularly concerned with whatever significance Allan may have to the history of modern dance). On the other hand, Brown’s Allan radiates plenty of charisma, which helps account for the public’s fascination with her.

Mark Anderson Phillips is deliciously pompous and self-important as Billing, his resolve to have his say unshaken by any logic, sense of propriety, or hint of shame at his own priggish duplicity.  Phillips is also unexpectedly touching as Maud’s brother Theo Durrant, with an air of childish innocence that makes it seem equally plausible that he’s indeed the murderer he’s made out to be but is mentally impaired in some way, or that he’s as innocent of the charges as he and his family believe him to be.

Anthony Nemirovsky exudes an unnerving blend of fanaticism and weaseliness as Billing’s henchman, American-born former British secret agent Harold Spencer. Kevin Clarke is darling as Justice Darling, the delightfully high-spirited judge hearing the trial, who reserves his scowls for Billing’s propagandistic shenanigans. He also makes a melancholy but still poised and terribly witty Oscar Wilde, long past the end of his rope.

Liam Vincent is marvelously supercilious as Wilde’s former lover and eventual downfall, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. (It was a libel suit against Bosie’s father that led to Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency,” which in turn destroyed his health and led to his early death.) Savoring his wit and exuding an air of contemptuous superiority, Douglas is still trying to clear his name by dragging Wilde’s through the mud, but Vincent lets you see how deeply convicted he is about it, and how earlier writings he now denounces still move him.

Alex Moggridge is a sympathetic, passionate and inarguably reasonable advocate as Allan’s lawyer, and he also plays an achingly haunted but still charming soldier who carries the war home with him on leave, resenting the civilians who have no idea what it’s like. Marilee Talkington gives touching turns as Maud’s stoically enduring mother, as a fuming and near-crazed coconspirator in Billing’s case, as the dignified wife of the former prime minister, as a naive rookie soldier, and as a young war widow out on the town and glad to be rid of her brutish husband.

Everyone except Brown plays a group of soldiers in the trenches, debating about the relative merits of different brands of chocolate and musing about the Allan case. From time to time someone will call out a number and they’ll all laugh, because they’ve told the same jokes so many times that they’ve assigned numbers to them. (This is itself a very old joke, but the payoff is as funny here as ever.)

Jackson’s staging makes deft use of blocking and movement, with Allan often circling the action slowly or watching sad-eyed from the aisle. Sometimes two people seated at a table will be rotated slowly on a platform by other actors crouching below them. Allan’s curtain calls for her dance performances are accompanied by the thud of a bouquet or newspaper dropping from overhead. A bloody battle scene is accompanied by a shower of red flower petals.

Nina Ball’s set is a musty heap of crates, wooden chairs and sandbags, a trench wall that looms over the proceedings. The classical pieces used in Matt Stines’s sound design add rich emotional texture. (The booming machine-gun fire, gallows sounds, and the like are also starkly effective.) Callie Floor’s period costumes for Maud are lovely (the most striking of them is a replica of the Salome outfit that Allan designed for herself), and she provides an impressive array of changes of clothing for the several characters each actor plays, sometimes morphing from one to another mid-scene.

Dates and details are sometimes projected onto a high screen to provide a bit of historical context without trying to shoehorn it into the dialogue, but even so you may want to consult the helpful program notes lest you get confused about who’s who and what’s what, most of which eventually becomes clear in the play, but certainly not all of it.

The rabidly homophobic subtext of the entire conspiracy theory advanced by Billing and Spencer is obfuscated a bit here amid all the crazy talk of sadism and knowing what a clitoris is as signs of general perversion and anti-British activities. When Talkington’s true believer Eileen Villiers-Stewart accuses Allan and Darling of being among the names in the mythical Black Book on the witness stand, it’s not clear what exactly she’s insinuating.

Jackson’s script is often very funny and just as often tremendously poignant, particularly in one-on-one encounters like the soldier and the war widow or a fanciful meeting between Allan and Wilde.

The connection between the war and Allan’s travails is loose and never quite comes together in the play. Allan wails that the war has nothing to do with her, and she’s right. Nevertheless, Jackson does his best to lace the two together by having British soldiers in French trenches gossiping about the Allan case all the time, and having Maud dance slowly around the soldiers as they do about their soldierly business.

It may be frustrating for the viewer that, after the trial has taken up so much of the play, that the verdict is mentioned only in passing and we learn nothing at all about what becomes of Allan—or her adversaries, for that matter—afterward. In the play as in life, the trial takes up a great deal of time and attention but is ultimately a distraction from the very real and tragic business of the war. As Allan, channeling Salome, says in both Wilde’s and Jackson’s plays’ climactic scenes, “But what matter? What matter?”

As herself, Allan says, “No one knows my feelings and no one ever shall,” while practically wearing her distress and hurt on her sleeve. It’s an acceptable answer for an artist protective of her privacy under horribly intrusive attacks, but it’s not a very satisfying one in a play that’s ostensibly about her. Like her dance of the seven veils, it ultimately feels like it’s all a tease.

Through July 29
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #59 of 2012, attended June 21.

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