Winter 2001

Wilde About Kabuki at Queens College


shering in the Oscar Wilde centennial last November 30, the Drama Department at Queens College broke new theatrical ground with an October production of Wilde's highly stylized, sexually charged biblical play Salome, which later provided the subject for Richard Strauss's hair-raising opera. The horrific image of the biblical Salome, dancing in the blood of John the Baptist, whom she has requested to be decapitated, provoked fierce controversy when Oscar Wilde's tragedy was first performed in the 1890s.
Wilde's Salome
A scene from the Queens College kabuki-style production of Wilde's Salome.

The production was conceived and directed by Queens College and Graduate Center professor of drama Dallas McCurley, a specialist in Chinese theater who previously taught for 10 years at the University of Hawaii and two years at the National University of Singapore (she still owns a farm in Hawaii, where she grew up). Speaking afterward about the performances, Dr. McCurley felt her concept had proved successful, Wilde's sensational play adapting easily to kabuki, which had its beginnings in erotic dance.

"The effect was even more blatant and sexual," McCurley noted, "because one sacred protocol of kabuki is that actors never touch each other. Kabuki's suggestive gestures in sexual or battle scenes made the action even more intense."

Seen under the moon that presides over the action-here it is blue, in Wilde it is "blood-red"-is the Salome of Guyanese-born Ushvani Persaud, below, and the frantic, sex-obsessed Herod, of Dan Fodera. This is just before Salome's climactic demise, which McCurley changed from being crushed by a soldier's shield to the swoosh of a samurai sword.

McCurley adds that the greatest challenge for her cast was speaking Wilde's hypnotic lines to a taped soundtrack of traditional kabuki music. That and pulling the stylized choreography of gesture and dance together in six weeks rather than the year of rehearsal a kabuki production usually requires.

"Some kabuki purists were miffed," McCurley reports, "but others loved it. And Wildeans were enthusiastic, several saying they thought that Oscar would have been delighted!" Thanks to major support from Interim President Russ Hotzler, the production goes on the road in March, having been invited to participate in a major conference in Pennsylvania with the perfectly apt title "East-West: Points of Contact." It will also be featured in the journal Camera Obscura.