Twenty-three years after the trial of Oscar Wilde, another celebrity trial rocked early-20th-century British society. Maud Allan — who starred in Wilde’s “Salome,” and, like Wilde, was accused of being a degenerate — became the focus of a legal battle that was just as sensational as the Irish playwright’s.
Allan has long deserved a play of her own, and she gets a brilliant one in Mark Jackson’s “Salomania.”
Directed by the playwright in its world premiere by Aurora Theatre Company, it’s an incisive courtroom drama that does for Allan what Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency” did for Wilde.
But it’s also an intriguing biography of an exceptional woman, and an instructive look at an era not unlike our own.
Allan, who spent part of her early life in San Francisco, was an ideal target for slander. Famous for her “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she was the embodiment of female sexuality.
She was also a foreigner in England, and had studied in Germany — which made her useful for inciting anti-German sentiment while British troops were being decimated in World War I.
The play begins when Noel Pemberton-Billing (Mark Anderson Phillips), a tabloid editor and member of British Parliament, accuses her of being a lesbian listed in a rumored “Black Book” of German subversives. When she sues him for libel, the trial explodes in headlines across Europe.
Jackson’s play, which draws from transcripts of the 1918 trial, is deftly staged in overlapping scenes depicting the courtroom, battle sites and correspondence between Allan and her family (Nina Ball’s multilevel set, Heather Basarab’s shapely lighting, Callie Floor’s apt costumes, and Matt Stines’ sound designs, incorporating music of the period, smooth the transitions.)
Seven actors play all the parts. Madeline H.D. Brown’s Maud is eloquent in her spoken scenes and graceful in Chris Black’s choreography. Phillips is a forceful Pemberton-Billing, and Kevin Clarke does a masterful double turn as Wilde and Judge Darling.
Alex Moggridge summons outrage as Maud’s attorney, and Liam Vincent blends elegance and pathos as Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
Anthony Nemirovsky unravels convincingly as government agent Harold Spencer, and Marilee Talkington gives sharply defined performances in multiple female roles.
The trial scenes are riveting, but some of the finest moments in “Salomania” happen outside the courtroom. An encounter between a bitter soldier (Moggridge) and a war widow (Talkington) is haunting; a chance meeting for Maud and Wilde reveals how much each has lost.
Maud, who lost the suit and her livelihood, may not have been the real target in the war on indecency. But she was collateral damage.
Presented by Aurora Theatre
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes July 22
Tickets: $30 to $48
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org