Nights are getter chillier, and it’s that time of year when it’s hard to decide: Brave the cold for an evening of theater or just cozy up in the living room with a nice hot cup of tea? Curiously enough, Out of Hand Theater is giving Atlantans the opportunity to experience a bit of both with its latest production, “Salome.” The one-act, one-woman show isn’t taking place in one of Atlanta’s conventional theater spaces, but in a series of living rooms in private homes across the city every weekend through November 23.
And before you start feeling too cozy about the idea of lounging on a couch in front of a blazing fireplace with that hot cup of tea that actress Maia Knispel politely pours for each member of her small audience, you should know that “Salome” is a strictly no-children-allowed experience. It takes that feeling of ease and intimacy and turns it on its head until the audience realizes that what’s being served alongside that nice, homey cup isn’t just sugar cubes but a discomforting look into the dark elements of human sexuality.
“Salome” is a 45-minute monologue by playwright Charles Mee, who is best known for his work with found texts. As he famously says on his website, “There is no such thing as an original play,” and to help prove his point, “Salome,” like many of his other works, is a compilation of various texts. He uses short pieces and anecdotes pulled from or inspired by the writings of Catherine Millet, Gustave Flaubert, Camille Paglia, Annie Sprinkle, Colette and various anonymous Internet posters.
It’s a diverse group — French intellectuals, feminist provocateurs, porn stars and prostitutes — and they variously consider diverse experiences, from group sex and childhood memories of the sea to molestation and shopping for shoes. It’s up to the actress speaking this intriguingly jumbled puzzle to produce a unified picture, to create the woman who has experienced and contemplated these things and is now speaking of them to a roomful of people.
In Knispel’s vision (she not only performs the show but created its concept), our narrator is, in contrast to her earthy subject matter, a prim and proper hostess with a breathy voice, wan smile, string of pearls and posh heels. It’s a play that draws viewers into a fractured, implied history, a character we see through a broken kaleidoscope, a person who’s always close enough to touch but nonetheless remains mysterious. There’s a plain-spoken, Pinteresque open-endedness to Mee’s text and to Knispel’s enactment of it.
The title suggests the famous dance of the seven veils: a provocative performance, a slow revelation, the use of female sexuality to manipulate male power. But the monologue ends with the narrator pointing out (ironically, considering what we’ve just witnessed) that there’s no such thing as the dance of the seven veils. It’s a romantic invention, she explains, an elaboration of a story from the Bible, an added detail that’s totally unmentioned in the Book of Matthew itself.
A reception follows the show, and at the lovely Inman Park home I went to, there were light hors d’oeuvres along with beer and wine and stiffer fare to follow up the tea. The fun, lively conversation as guests shared their varying takes on the enigmatic character they’d just encountered was as much a part of the performance as anything else. “Salome” is strong, thought-provoking work: Mee might argue that there’s no such thing as an original play, but here the most striking element is originality, the newness and freshness of what’s put in front of us.
The experience is intimate, often awkwardly and discomfortingly so. But viewers should know that there’s no terrifying audience participation, no nudity or anything along those lines other than frank talk about sexual matters. “Salome” certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the small groups that are lucky and brave enough to go along for the ride will have one of the Atlanta theatrical season’s most unusual, provocative and compelling experiences.