And Salome Danced
by Kelley Eskridge
They’re the best part, auditions: the last chance to hold in my mind the play as it should be. The uncast actors are easiest to direct; empty stages offer no barriers. Everything is clear, uncomplicated by living people and their inability to be what is needed.
“What I need,” I say to my stage manager, “is a woman who can work on her feet.”
“Hmmm,” says Lucky helpfully. She won’t waste words on anything so obvious. Our play is Salome, subtitled Identity and Desire. Salome has to dance worth killing for.
The sense I have, in those best, sweet moments, is that I do not so much envision the play as experience it in some sort of multidimensional gestalt. I feel Salome’s pride and the terrible control of her body’s rhythms; Herod’s twitchy groin and his guilt and his unspoken love for John; John’s relentless patience, and his fear. The words of the script sometimes seize me as if bypassing vision, burrowing from page into skin, pushing blood and nerve to the bursting limit on the journey to my brain. The best theatre lives inside. I’ll spend weeks trying to feed the sensation and the bloodsurge into the actors, but… But I can’t do their job. But they can’t read my mind. And people wonder why we drink.
Lucky snorts at me when I tell her these things: if it isn’t a tech cue or a blocking note, it has nothing to do with the real play as far as she’s concerned. She doesn’t understand that for me the play is best before it is real, when it is still only mine.
“Nine sharp,” she says now. “Time to start. Some of them have already been out there long enough to turn green.” She smiles; her private joke.
“Let’s go,” I say, my part of the ritual; and then I have to do it, have to let go. I sit forward over the script in my usual eighth row seat; Lucky takes her clipboard and her favorite red pen, the one she’s had since Cloud Nine, up the aisle. She pushes open the lobby door, and the sound of voices rolls through, cuts off. All of them out there, wanting in. I feel in my gut their tense waiting silence as Lucky calls the first actor’s name.
They’re hard on everyone, auditions. Actors bare their throats. Directors make instinctive leaps of faith about what an actor could or might or must do in this or that role, with this or that partner. It’s kaleidoscopic, religious, it’s violent and subjective. It’s like soldiers fighting each other just to see who gets to go to war. Everyone gets bloody, right from the start.
Forty minutes before a late lunch break, when my blood sugar is at its lowest point, Lucky comes back with the next resume and headshot and the first raised eyebrow of the day. The eyebrow, the snort, the flared nostril, the slight nod, are Lucky’s only comments on actors. They are minimal and emphatic.
Behind her walks John the Baptist. He calls himself Joe Something-or-other, but he’s John straight out of my head. Dark red hair. The kind of body that muscles up long and compact, strong and lean. He moves well, confident but controlled. When he’s on stage he even stands like a goddamn prophet. And his eyes are John’s eyes: deep blue like deep sea. He wears baggy khaki trousers, a loose, untucked white shirt, high top sneakers, a Greek fisherman’s cap. His voice is clear, a half-tone lighter than many people expect in a man: perfect.
The monologue is good, too. Lucky shifts in her seat next to me. We exchange a look, and I see that her pupils are wide.
“Is he worth dancing for, then?”
She squirms, all the answer I really need. I look at the resume again. Joe Sand. He stands calmly on stage. Then he moves very slightly, a shifting of weight, a leaning in toward Lucky. While he does it, he looks right at her, watching her eyes for that uncontrollable pupil response. He smiles. Then he tries it with me. Aha, I think, surprise, little actor.
“Callbacks are Tuesday and Wednesday nights,” I say neutrally. “We’ll let you know.”
He steps off the stage. He is half in shadow when he asks, “Do you have Salome yet?”
“No precasting,” Lucky says.
“I know someone you’d like,” he says, and even though I can’t quite see him I know he is talking to me. Without the visual cue of his face, the voice has become trans-gendered, the body shape ambiguous.
“Any more at home like you, Joe?” I must really need my lunch.
“Whatever you need,” he says, and moves past me, past Lucky, up the aisle. Suddenly, I’m ravenously hungry. Four more actors between me and the break, and I know already that I won’t remember any of them longer than it takes for Lucky to close the doors behind them.
The next day is better. By late afternoon I have seen quite a few good actors, men and women, and Lucky has started a callback list.
“How many left?” I ask, coming back from the bathroom, rubbing the back of my neck with one hand and my waist with the other. I need a good stretch, some sweaty muscle-heating exercise, a hot bath. I need Salome.
Lucky is frowning at a paper in her hand. “Why is Joe Sand on this list?”
“God, Lucky, I want him for callbacks, that’s why.”
“No, this sheet is today’s auditions.”
I read over her shoulder. Jo Sand. “Dunno. Let’s go on to the next one, maybe we can actually get back on schedule.”
When I next hear Lucky’s voice, after she has been up to the lobby to bring in the next actor, I know that something is terribly wrong.
By this time I have stood and turned and I can see for myself what she is not able to tell me.
“Jo Sand,” I say.
“Hello again,” she says. The voice is the same; she is the same, and utterly different. She wears the white shirt tucked into the khaki pants this time, pulled softly across her breasts. Soft black shoes, like slippers, that make no noise when she moves. No cap today, that red hair thick, brilliant above the planes of her face. Her eyes are Salome’s eyes: deep blue like deep desire. She is as I imagined her. When she leans slightly toward me, she watches my eyes and then smiles. Her smell goes straight up my nose and punches into some ancient place deep in my brain.
We stand like that for a long moment, the three of us. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have the right words for conversation with the surreal except when it’s inside my head. I don’t know what to do when it walks down my aisle and shows me its teeth.
“I want you to see that I can be versatile,” Jo says.
The air in our small circle has become warm and sticky. My eyes feel slightly crossed, my mind is slipping gears. I won’t ask, I will not ask… It’s as if I were trying to bring her into focus through 3-D glasses; trying to make two separate images overlay. It makes me seasick. I wonder if Lucky is having the same trouble, and then I see that she has simply removed herself in some internal way. She doesn’t see Jo look at me with those primary eyes.
But I see: and suddenly I feel wild, electric, that direct-brain connection that makes my nerves stand straight under my skin. Be careful what you ask for, Mars. “I don’t guess you really need to do another monologue,” I tell her. Lucky is still slack-jawed with shock.
Jo smiles again.
Someone else is talking with my voice. “Lucky will schedule you for callbacks.” Beside me, Lucky jerks at the sound of her name. Jo turns to her. Her focus is complete. Her whole body says, I am waiting. I want her on stage. I want to see her like that, waiting for John’s head on a platter.
“Mars, what…” Lucky swallows, tries again. She speaks without looking at the woman standing next to her. “Do you want… oh, shit. What part are you reading this person for in callbacks, goddamnit anyway.” I haven’t seen her this confused since her mother’s boyfriend made a pass at her years ago, one Thanksgiving, his hand hidden behind the turkey platter at the buffet. Confusion makes Lucky fragile and brings her close to tears.
Jo looks at me, still waiting. Yesterday I saw John the Baptist: I remember how he made Lucky’s eyebrow quirk and I can imagine the rehearsals; how he might sit close to her, bring her coffee, volunteer to help her set props. She’d be a wreck in one week and useless in two. And today how easy it is to see Salome, who waits so well and moves with such purpose. I should send this Jo away, but I won’t: I need a predator for Salome; I can’t do a play about desire without someone who knows about the taste of blood.
“Wear a skirt,” I say to Jo. “I’ll need to see you dance.” Lucky closes her eyes.
Somehow we manage the rest of the auditions, make the first cut, organize the callback list. There are very few actors I want to see again. When we meet for callbacks, I bring them all in and sit them in a clump at the rear of the house, where I can see them when I want to and ignore them otherwise. But always I am conscious of Jo. I read her with the actors that I think will work best in other roles. She is flexible, adapting herself to their different styles, giving them what they need to make the scene work. She’s responsive to direction. She listens well. I can’t find anything wrong with her.
Then it is time for the dance. There are three women that I want to see, and I put them all on stage together. “Salome’s dance is the most important scene in the play. It’s a crisis point for every character. Everyone has something essential invested in it. It has to carry a lot of weight.”
“What are you looking for?” one of the women asks. She has long dark hair and good arms.
“Power,” I answer, and beside her Jo’s head comes up like a pointing dog’s, her nostrils flared with some rich scent. I pretend not to see. “Her dance is about power over feelings and lives. There’s more, but power’s the foundation, and that’s what I need to see.”
The woman who asked nods her head and looks down, chewing the skin off her upper lip. I turn away to give them a moment for this new information to sink in; looking out into the house, I see the other actors sitting forward in their seats, and I know they are wondering who it will be, and whether they could work with her, and what they would do in her place.
I turn back. “I want you all to dance together up here. Use the space any way you like. Take a minute to warm up and start whenever you’re ready.”
I can see the moment that they realize, ohmigod no music, how can we dance without, goddamn all directors anyway. But I want to see their interpretation of power, not music. If they don’t have it in them to dance silent in front of strangers, if they can’t compete, if they can’t pull all my attention and keep it, then they can’t give me what I need. Salome wouldn’t hesitate.
The dark haired woman shrugs, stretches her arms out and down toward her toes. The third woman slowly begins to rock her hips; her arms rise swaying in the cliche of eastern emerald-in-the-navel bellydance. She moves as if embarrassed, and I don’t blame her. The dark-haired woman stalls for another moment and then launches into a jerky jazz step with a strangely syncopated beat. I can almost hear her humming her favorite song under her breath; her head tilts up and to the right and she moves in her own world, to her own sound. That’s not right, either. I realize that I’m hoping one of them will be what I need, so that I do not have to see Jo dance.
And where is Jo? There, at stage right, watching the other two women, comfortable in her stillness. Then she slides gradually into motion, steps slowly across the stage and stops three feet from the bellydancer, whose stumbling rhythm slows and then breaks as Jo stands, still, watching. Jo looks her straight in the eye, and just as the other woman begins to drop her gaze, Jo suddenly whirls, throwing herself around so quickly that for an instant it’s as if her head is facing the opposite direction from her body. It is a nauseating moment, and it’s followed by a total body shrug, a shaking off, that is both contemptuous and intently erotic. Now she is facing the house, facing the other actors, facing Lucky, facing me: now she shows us what she can do. Her dance says this is what I am, that you can never be; see my body move as it will never move with yours. She stoops for an imaginary platter, and from the triumph in her step I begin to see the bloody prize. The curve of her arm shows me the filmed eye and the lolling tongue; the movement of her breast and belly describe for me the wreckage of the neck, its trailing cords; her feet draw pictures in the splashed gore as she swirls and turns and snaps her arm out like a discus thrower, tossing the invisible trophy straight at me. When I realize that I have raised a hand to catch it, I know that I have to have her, no matter what she is. Have to have her for the play. Have to have her.
When the actors are gone, Lucky and I go over the list. We do not discuss Salome. Lucky has already set the other two women’s resumes aside.
Before we leave: “God, she was amazing. She’ll be great, Mars. I’m really glad it turned out this way, you know, that she decided to drop that crossdressing stuff.”
“It really gave me a start, seeing her that day. She was so convincing as a man. I thought… well, nothing. It was stupid.”
“It wasn’t stupid.”
“You didn’t seem surprised – did you know that first time when he… when she came in that she wasn’t…? Why didn’t you say?”
“If I’m looking at someone who can play John, I don’t really care how they pee or whether they shave under their chins. Gender’s not important.”
“It is if you think you might want to go to bed with it.”
“Mmm,” I say again. What I cannot tell Lucky is that all along I have been in some kind of shock; like walking through swamp mud, where the world is warm silkywet but you are afraid to look down for fear of what might be swimming with you in the murk. I know that this is not a game: Joe was a man when he came in and a woman when she came back. I look at our cast list, and I know that something impossible and dangerous is trying to happen; but all I really see is that suddenly my play-the one inside me-is possible. She’ll blow a hole through every seat in the house. She’ll burst their brains.
Three weeks into rehearsal, Lucky has unremembered enough to start sharing coffee and head-together conferences with Jo during breaks. The other actors accept Jo as someone they can’t believe they never heard of before, a comrade in the art wars. We are such a happy group; we give great ensemble.
Lance, who plays Herod, regards Jo as some kind of wood sprite, brilliant and fey. He is myopic about her to the point that if she turned into an anaconda, he would stroke her head while she wrapped herself around him. Lance takes a lot of kidding about his name, especially from his boyfriends. During our early rehearsals, he discovered a very effective combination of obsession and revulsion in Herod: as if he would like to eat Salome alive and then throw her up again, a sort of sexual bulimia.
Susan plays Herodias; Salome’s mother, Herod’s second wife, his brother’s widow. She makes complicated seem simple. She works well with Lance, giving him a strong partner who nevertheless dims in comparison to her flaming daughter, a constant reminder to Herod of the destruction that lurks just on the other side of a single yes to this stepdaughter/niece/demonchild who dances in his fantasies. Susan watches Jo so disinterestedly that it has taken me most of this time to see how she has imitated and matured the arrogance that Jo brings to the stage. She is a tall black woman, soft muscle where Jo is hard: nothing like Jo, but she has become Salome’s mother.
And John the Baptist, whose real name is Frank and who is nothing like Joe: I’m not sure I could have cast him if he had come to the audition with red hair, but his is black this season, Irish black for the O’Neill repertory production that he just finished. Lucky says he has “Jesus feet.” Frankie’s a method actor, disappointed that he doesn’t have any sense memory references for decapitation. “I know it happens offstage,” he says earnestly, at least once a week. “But it needs to be there right from the start, I want them to think about it every scene with her.” Them is always the audience. Her is always Jo. Offstage, he looks at her the way a child looks at a harvest moon.
Three weeks is long enough for us all to become comfortable with the process but not with the results: the discoveries the actors made in the first two weeks refuse to gel, refuse to reinvent themselves. It’s a frustrating phase. We’re all tense but trying not to show it, trying not to undermine anyone else’s efforts. It’s hard for the actors, who genuinely want to support each other, but don’t really want to see someone else break through first. Too scary: no one wants to be left behind. So they give themselves up to me. Between us is so much deliberate vulnerability, control, desire to please; so much of the stuff that sex is made of. Working with my actors is like handling bolts of cloth: they each have a texture, a tension. Lance is brocade and plush; Susan is smooth velvet, subtle to the touch; Frankie is spun wool, warm and indefinably tough. And Jo: Jo is raw silk and razorblades, so fine that you don’t feel the cut.
So we’re all tense; except for Jo. Oh, she talks, but she’s not worried; she’s waiting for something, and I am beginning to turn those audition days over in my memory, sucking the taste from the bones of those encounters and wondering what it was that danced with me in those early rounds, what I have invited in.
And a peculiar thing begins: as I grow more disturbed, Jo’s work becomes better and better. In those moments when I suddenly see myself as the trainer with my head in the mouth of the beast, when I slip and show that my hand is sweaty on the leash-in those moments her work is so pungent, so ripe that Jo the world-shaker disappears, and the living Salome looks up from the cut-off t-shirt, flexes her thigh muscles under the carelessly torn jeans. We have more and more of Salome every rehearsal.
On Friday nights I bring a cooler of Corona and a bag of limes for whoever wants to share them. This Friday everyone stays. We sit silent for the first cold green-gold swallows. Lance settles back into Herod’s large throne. I straddle a folding chair and rest my arms along the back, bottle loose in one hand. Lucky and the other actors settle on the platforms that break the stage into playing areas.
It starts with the actors talking, as they always do, about work. Lance has played another Herod, years ago, in Jesus Christ Superstar, and he wants to tell us how different that was.
“I’d like to do Superstar,” Jo says. It sounds like an idle remark. She is leaning back with her elbows propped against the rise of a platform, her breasts pushing gently against the fabric of her shirt as she raises her bottle to her mouth. I look away because I do not want to watch her drink, don’t want to see her throat work as the liquid goes down.
Lance considers a moment. “I think you’d be great, sweetheart,” he says, “But Salome to Mary Magdalene is a pretty big stretch. Acid to apple juice. Wouldn’t you at least like to play a semi-normal character in between, work up to it a little?”
Jo snorts. “I’m not interested in Magdalene. I’ll play Judas.”
Lance whoops, Frankie grins, and even the imperturbable Susan smiles. “Well, why not?” Lance says. “Why shouldn’t she play Judas if she wants to?”
“She’s a girl,” Frankie says, and shrugs.
Susan sits up. “Why shouldn’t she have the part if she can do the work?”
Frankie gulps his beer and wipes his mouth. “Why should any director hire a woman to play a man when they can get a real man to do it?”
“What do you think, Mars?” The voice is Jo’s. It startles me. I have been enjoying the conversation so much that I have forgotten the danger in relaxing around Jo or anything that interests her. I look at her now, still sprawled back against the platform with an inch of golden beer in the bottle beside her. She has been enjoying herself, too. I’m not sure where this is going, what the safe answer is. I remember saying to Lucky, Gender’s not important.
“Gender’s not important, isn’t that right, Mars?”
Lucky told her about it. But I know Lucky didn’t. She didn’t have to.
“That’s right,” I say, and I know from Jo’s smile that my voice is not as controlled as it should be. Even so, I’m not prepared for what happens next: a jumble of pictures in my head, images of dancing in a place so dark that I cannot tell if I am moving with men or women, images of streets filled with androgynous people and people whose gender-blurring surpasses androgyny and leaps into the realm of performance. Women dressed as men making love to men; men dressed as women hesitating in front of public bathroom doors; women in high heels and pearls with biceps so large that they split the expensive silk shirts. And the central image, the real point: Jo, naked, obviously female, slick with sweat, moving under me and over me, Jo making love to me until I gasp and then she begins to change, to change, until it is Joe with me, Joe on me-and I open my mouth to shout my absolute, instinctive refusal-and I remember Lucky saying It is if you think you might want to sleep with it-and the movie breaks in my head and I am back with the others. No one has noticed that I’ve been assaulted, turned inside out. They’re still talking about it: “Just imagine the difference in all the relationships if Judas were a woman,” Susan says earnestly to Frankie. “It would change everything!” Jo smiles at me and swallows the last of her beer.
The next rehearsal I feel fragile, as if I must walk carefully to keep from breaking myself. I have to rest often.
I am running a scene with Frankie and Lance when I notice Lucky offstage, talking earnestly to Jo. Jo puts one hand up, interrupts her, smiles, speaks, and they both turn to look at me. Lucky suddenly blushes. She walks quickly away from Jo, swerves to avoid me. Jo’s smile is bigger. Her work in the next scene is particularly fine and full.
“What did she say to you, Luck?” I ask her as we are closing the house for the evening.
“Nothing,” Lucky mumbles.
“Okay, fine. She wanted to know if you ever slept with your actors, okay?”
I know somehow that it’s not entirely true: I can hear Jo’s voice very clearly, saying to Lucky So does Mars ever fuck the leading lady? while she smiles that catlick smile. Jo has the gift of putting pictures into people’s heads, and I believe Lucky got a mindful. That’s what really sickens me, the idea that Lucky now has an image behind her eyes of what I’m like… no, of what Jo wants her to think I’m like. God knows. I don’t want to look at her.
“Did you get my message?” Jo says to me the next evening, when she finally catches me alone in the wings during a break from rehearsal. She has been watching me all night. Lucky won’t talk to her.
“I’m not in the script.”
“Everybody’s in the script.”
“Look, I don’t get involved with actors. It’s too complicated, it’s messy. I don’t do it.”
“Make an exception.”
Lucky comes up behind Jo. Whatever the look is on my face, it gets a scowl from her. “Break’s over,” she says succinctly, turning away from us even before the words are completely out, halfway across the stage before I think to try to keep her with me.
“Let’s get back to work, Jo.”
“Make a fucking exception.”
I don’t like being pushed by actors, and there’s something else, too, but I don’t want to think about it now, I just want Jo off my back, so I give her the director voice, the vocal whip. “Save it for the stage, princess. You want to impress me, get out there and do your fucking job.”
She doesn’t answer; her silence makes a cold, high-altitude circle around us. When she moves, it’s like a snake uncoiling, and then her hand is around my wrist. She’s strong. When I look down, I see that her hand is changing: the bones thicken under the flesh, the muscles rearrange themselves subtly, and it’s Joe’s hand on Jo’s arm, Joe’s hand on mine. “Don’t make me angry, Mars,” and the voice is genderless and buzzes like a snake. There is no one here to help me, I can’t see Lucky, I’m all alone with this hindbrain thing that wants to come out and play with me. Jo’s smile is by now almost too big for her face. Just another actor, I think crazily, they’re all monsters anyway.
“What are you?” I am shaking.
“Whatever you need, Mars. Whatever you need. Every director’s dream. At the moment, I’m Salome, right down to the bone. I’m what you asked for.”
“I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want this.”
“You wanted Salome, and now you’ve got her. The power, the sex, the hunger, the need, the wanting, it’s all here.”
“It’s a play. It’s just… it’s a play, for chrissake.”
“It’s real for you.” That hand is still locked around my wrist; the other hand, the soft small hand, reaches up to the center of my chest where my heart tries to skitter away from her touch. “I saw it, that first audition. I came to play John the Baptist, I saw the way Lucky looked at me, and I was going to give her something to remember… but your wanting was so strong, so complex. It’s delicious, Mars. It tastes like spice and wine and sweat. The play in your head is more real to you than anything, isn’t it, more real than your days of bright sun, your friends, your office transactions. I’m going to bring it right to you, into your world, into your life. I’ll give you Salome. On stage, off stage, there doesn’t have to be any difference. Isn’t that what making love is, giving someone what they really want?”
She’s still smiling that awful smile, and I can’t tell whether she is talking about love because she really means it or because she knows it makes my stomach turn over. Or maybe both.
“Get out of here. Out of here, right now.” I am shaking.
“You don’t mean that, sweet. If you did, I’d already be gone.”
“I’ll cancel the show.”
She doesn’t answer: she looks at me and then, phht, I am seeing the stage from the audience perspective, watching Herod and Herodias quarrel and cry and struggle to protect their love, watching John’s patient fear as Herod’s resolve slips away: watching Salome dance. When she dances, she brings us all with her, the whole audience living inside her skin for those moments. We all whirl and reach and bend, we all promise, we all twist away. We all tempt. We all rage. We stuff ourselves down Herod’s throat until he chokes on us. And then we are all suddenly back in our own bodies and we roar until our throats hurt and our voices rasp. All the things that I have felt about this play, she will make them feel. What I am will be in them. What I have inside me will bring them to their feet and leave them full and aching. Oh god, it makes me weep, and then I am back with her, she still holds me with that monster hand, and all I can do is cry with wanting so badly what she can give me.
Her eyes are too wide, too round, too pleased. “Oh,” she says, still gently, “It’s okay. You’ll enjoy most of it, I promise.” And she’s gone, sauntering onstage, calling out something to Lance, and her upstage hand is still too big, still wrong. She lets it caress her thigh once before she turns it back into the Jo hand. I’ve never seen anything more obscene. I have to take a minute to dry my eyes, cool my face. I feel a small, hollow place somewhere deep, as if Jo reached inside and found something she liked enough to take for herself. She’s there now, just onstage, ready to dance, that small piece of me humming in her veins. How much more richness do I have within me? How long will it take to eat me, bit by bit? She raises her arms now and smiles, already tasting. Already well fed.
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