trixxie carr Reimages the Tale of Salome

by Jean Schiffman

The premiere of carr’s one-woman, multi-character glam rock musical, “Salome, Dance For Me” plays at New Conservatory Theatre August 5-29.

“Why is the story of Salome so important to us that it keeps getting told?” mused theater artist trixxie carr.

That question was part of what inspired her to create her new, one-woman, multi-character glam rock musical, “Salome, Dance For Me.” It premieres at New Conservatory Theatre Center, where it was developed, with her collaborators—co-composer Robert Mollicone and director Ben Randle—over the course of a year as part of the company’s Emerging Artist program. In it, carr, a writer/lyricist/composer/performer who’s a fixture on San Francisco’s drag nightclub scene (and is one of the city’s first “faux queens”), portrays four distinct characters through song, dialogue and movement in a gender- and genre-bending version of the ancient, oft-adapted tale.

When carr and Randle (artistic associate at New Conservatory) were students at San Francisco State, carr became obsessed with Oscar Wilde’s 1892 theatrical version of the Salome story. She was also entranced by Aubrey Beardsley’s black-ink illustrations that were published with Wilde’s text. And she was drawn to the multi-faceted character of Salome.

Salome first appears in the New Testament as the anonymous dancing daughter of Queen Herodias of Judea. Herodias influences her husband, King Herod, to have John the Baptist (called, in carr’s version, Iokanaan) beheaded in revenge; he’d condemned the royal couple’s marriage as incest. It is the daughter who carries out the order. That daughter is identified as Salome by first-century Jewish scholar Josephus.

Drawing from a number of Salome sources for his play—including a short story by Gustave Flaubert and the art of Gustave Moreau—Wilde enriched the plot; in his version, Salome performs an erotic Dance of the Seven Veils for the pleasure of the lustful Herod, then requests, as a reward, Iokanaan’s head on a platter—partly to satisfy her mother’s demands and partly in revenge: Iokanaan has spurned her amorous advances. The iconic necrophiliac kiss in Wilde’s script was apparently inspired by Heinrich Heine’s 1843 version, “Atta Troll,” in which it’s the queen, not Salome, who passionately locks lips with the severed head.

Later, German composer Richard Strauss based his opera “Salome” on Wilde’s play in a German translation.

“I liked the idea of taking this simple thing [the bible story] and expanding it,” says carr. But she wasn’t sure how to approach the material: “Something completely from me? Wilde’s work? We started talking about the opera, too. I rewatched the silent film [from 1923] and the Ken Russell version [1988]. I decided I did want to use Wilde’s words. They’re beautiful; the play is written a lot like a poem, it has a rhythm. So I thought, if I’m going to do that, why not use some of the themes from the opera? Why not use everything at my disposal?”

She started by experimenting with Wilde’s phrasings, mixing in her own words as well. She knew she didn’t want to do a modern take on the story: “I wanted to use stylization to keep it feeling like an out-of-time experience—traveling back in time, or outside of time, to hear the story. I wanted these characters who are trapped [Iokanaan literally; he’s imprisoned in a well] to be released in some way by the end of the play, and to go a little bit beyond the story if possible. Oscar Wilde used concepts out of the collective consciousness and took them one step further, added something to them, and that’s what I’d like to do: go one step further in my own direction and see what that is.”

She and Mollicone, who’s a San Francisco Opera pianist and conductor and a frequent collaborator on world-premiere operas, listened to the scenes from Strauss’ “Salome” and began to create “pop-ish” songs. “He’d play [bits of] the opera on the piano,” explains carr. “I’d hear something I’d like and I’d say, ‘Can you play that again, and can we change the style?’ And we’d record it, sometimes just piano and me singing, some of them played into a computer program, which I’d take home to change the style drastically in Logic, a technical program where you can create loops of sound.” The music veers wildly from classical to electro-pop to glam rock, creating a score that she expects to be “savagely beautiful, with an edge.”

“It’s about fitting the music to the storytelling,” explains Mollicone, who says he worked hard to create a musical identity for each of the four characters carr is depicting. “We decided to actually deconstruct…Strauss’ music, which is composed of leitmotifs,” he continues, “and generate new music using those leitmotifs. So every character and every big idea has an associated melodic theme: one for [Iokanaan], one for seduction and so on. So rather than take a full section of score, we’re extracting a series of notes—a melodic fragment, mutating that to the needs of the music. We approach every song differently, depending on what the play or the storyline needs at that moment.”

Mollicone also read Wilde’s script, in the original French. Wilde wrote it in that language because laws in Victorian England forbade placing biblical characters onstage; Sarah Bernhardt starred in a Paris production. It was not until after Wilde’s death in 1900 that his “Salome,” having been translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas, finally appeared on the London stage. Mollicone describes the language of the original French version as “beautiful and elegant,” although at the time some critics called it simplistic and pretentious; Wilde’s writing in French was believed by many to be influenced by famed playwright/poet Maurice Maeterlinck, a representative of the late-19th-century, mystical, anti-naturalistic Symbolist movement in European art and literature.

In studying the source material, Mollicone kept one question in mind: “How do we make this story possible and worth telling by one person?” He focused on the guts of the characters, “what makes them tick,” and eliminated a lot of minor characters along the way. He, carr and Randle looked for “musical flavors” for each character—Herod is “sleazy and leering and gross,” he says, so his flavor is an homage to Hall & Oates, of sorts: “lounge-y piano rock”; Iokanaan’s might call up Creed: “deep, throaty, intense, passionate, lots of electric guitar—fire and brimstone with a fender amp.” The one character that has a variety of musical modes is Salome, who has the longest journey in the play. Her first song proper is somewhat Lady Gaga derivative, but she morphs, musically speaking, along the way.

Carr sees all the characters as powerful and powerless (Iokanaan’s is divine power, not of this plane of existence). “I wanted to examine that and bring all my drag theater into that,” she says. She perceives Salome and her mother as women trying to get what they need however they can. Salome uses her sensual dance as a bargaining tool—“and that’s interesting,” says carr, because things like that happen today, too. Salome is portrayed as both childish and womanly, and the play is full of people objectifying each other, carr observes. “So we will definitely be examining objectification, both of the performer and of the characters—their constructs and the way they view each other and themselves.”

“We were really interested in the sexuality,” notes Randle. “Trixxie embodies that in all her work—a playful taboo of female sexuality. In our society today, women’s sexuality is considered threatening . . . Trixxie has a connection with the character that feels unique; she felt a kinship and was interested in the taboo desire and decadence of the story, but from a different angle. . . . It’s turning the story on its head and looking at it from a new perspective: a character yearning to escape the world she’s in.” The team brought in dancer/choreographer/drag artist Monique Jenkinson as a movement dramaturg and to create the dance sequences, and Randle expects the production to have a sense of pageantry in the costumes and visuals; it will be poetic, and a feast for the eyes, he says.

“I want to address an obsession I have with the philosophical idea of the Other, or the abyss, the scary, taboo thing,” muses carr. In fact, one of the songs is called “Into the Abyss,” a nod to Nietzsche’s quote (“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster . . . for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”)

In fusing her own sensibility with the oft-told tale of Salome, carr joins other writers and artists throughout history, from the original tale told by the Gospels of Matthew and Mark through painters such as Filippo Lippi, Titian and Caravaggio, to an opera that predated Strauss’ (“Hérodiade,” by Jules Massenet, based on Flaubert’s story), to poetry, to songs (by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Liz Phair and many more) to dozens of films, including Al Pacino’s 2011 “Wilde Salome,” featuring Jessica Chastain. There’s even as asteroid named Salome.

“I want people to come away with more than just an ominous feeling,” says carr. “I want them to think about themselves and the stories we keep telling one other.”

August 5-29

“Salome, Dance For Me”

New Conservatory Theatre Center

25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco