A Wilde imagination

For those who have ever taken a high school literature class (and I'm assuming that most of you have) you've probably heard the name Oscar Wilde. In his lifetime, Wilde was known for his controversial plays and novels, such as "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and lived a flamboyant lifestyle that would ultimately land him in jail and cause him to die broke at the age of 46.

The Luna Playhouse, which is staging Wilde's "Salome" until Jan. 23, might not have the gigantic stage and state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment of some of the larger playhouses. But what they lack in the technical department, they make up for in casting. Thanks to the superb performances from Laura Cotenescu as Salome and Kevin Vavasseur as Herod, "Salome" was one of the most emotionally engaging plays I've seen in a while.

Unlike the societal comedies Wilde was known for, Salome is a tragedy and tells the biblical story of the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Salome is a virgin, yet has a trance-like effect over men that leaves most of them, even her own stepfather, doting. When a drunken Herod requests Salome to dance for him, she agrees on the condition that Herod gives her whatever she desires. "Give me the head of Jokanaan," Salome demands.

Jokanaan is John the Baptist, a prisoner of Herod's, whose head Salome has grown strangely fond of. Herod initially declares he will never do such a thing. But alas, he is but a man, and it would appear that Salome is more than just a woman. He ultimately buckles and gives his temptress of a stepdaughter Jokanaan's severed head, albeit to the displeasure of everyone around her.

In her actor's bio, Cotenescu noted how Salome "brought out the most of my creativity" and called it a "most interesting and beautiful journey that I will like to keep on doing for years and years and years." Well, Los Angeles could only be so lucky, because for 90 minutes Cotenescu not only embodied the seductive power of Salome, she became it.

With her arms flailing and eyes always drifting to the ceiling, Cotenescu's Salome had a naivety and vulnerability that made her seductive ways easier to accept. Even her voice was soft and gentle, yet still had the effectiveness of someone in charge, so that the most innocent of words had a devious intent. When she tells Jokanaan, "There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. I will kiss thy mouth," we get the sense that Salome's up to no good, and so does Jokanaan (Michael Joseph), who responds with a resounding "Never!"

As Herod, Vavasseur brought a wonderful balance to the role displaying both the authority of a sovereign ruler, as well as the human qualities of a man tormented by the beating urges of his own sexual desire. Herod may have been the ruler of a land as far as the eye could see, but Vavasseur knew that at his core, he was still a man. When Vavasseur says, "Salome dance for me, I am sad tonight," there is a pathetic tone in his voice that begs the deeper question of how can a man who's so powerful, be also so weak? Herod may have been Ruler, but in the presence of Salome he was a mere subject.

I'm happy the Luna Playhouse decided to stage "Salome." Its universal themes of raw obsession and human desire are as relevant today as they ever were. And to think it was written more than 100 years ago.

James Famera is a freelance arts critic based in Los Angeles.


What: "Salome" by Oscar Wilde

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays until Jan. 23

Where: Luna Playhouse, 3706 San Fernando Road, Glendale

Tickets: $15 and can be purchased at http://www.itsmyseat.com or by calling (818) 500-7200

Contact: Visit http://www.lunaplayhouse.org

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