Tuesday, June 30, 2015

'Our carnal stings' -- thoughts on Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 'Othello'

Geoffrey Kent as Iago and Peter Macon as Othello in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Othello." [Photo by Jennifer Koskinen/Courtesy Colorado Shakespeare Festival]
 We were forced to read “Othello” in high school. Despite this, it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. Scrape away the preconceptions, and memories of bad productions seen, and there’s a great river of vital stuff surging through it – race, sex, politics, loyalty, truth, possession, pride, and trust. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production works due to its strong central performance and a no-nonsense directorial approach by Lisa Wolpe that focuses on telling the story clearly rather than trying to score points for cleverness. It's an excellent introduction to this key work.

“Othello” is often thought to be a play out of balance, one in which its manipulative villain Iago dominates, reducing the title character to a pawn. But, done properly, the play is not misnamed. The web of circumstantial evidence Iago weaves to make Othello think his new, young wife Desdemona is cheating on him is insubstantial. Why doesn’t Othello sweep it away?

Precisely because Othello is an experienced warrior, a commander. Bluff, emotional, and open-hearted, his martial virtues are his undoing in a civilian society where ambiguity, innuendo, politicking, and deceit dominate. Played properly, as it is here, Iago merely triggers the explosion of a magnificent hero.

Peter Macon brings previous experience to the role as Othello, along with a presence that commands attention and a deep, resonant voice. Many times Othello has been played with an overdose of gravitas, but Macon gives the audience at the outset an exuberant, playful, charismatic, three-dimensional man, which makes his mental collapse and fragmentation all the more moving and fascinating to watch as the night progresses.

Adept at battle, Othello’s lost in love, or what he considers love to be. In the end, it seems to be only a reflection of his self-regard, and the perceived loss of it makes it necessary for him to slay the object of his affections. Macon’s Othello is incapable of plucking suspicion from his mind, and seems like someone who might have wound in the same dismal ending even without Iago’s goading.

Othello is adrift in a culture of sexual paranoia. Women are defined by their chastity; men are defined by ability to overcome that chastity. A woman not completely innocent or faithful is a worthless whore; a man whose woman is unfaithful is no man at all. (So things haven’t changed that much in 400 years.) To sleep with another man’s women is to shame and gain power over him.

Iago, long-time aide to Othello, thinks that Othello has cuckolded him – that and Othello’s preferment of another as his lieutenant spurs his stream of lies that lead to murder. The actor playing Iago has to be careful. The role has been played by and large as either transparently evil or, worse, incredibly bitchy. Exceptional interpreters of the role such as Ian McKellen and Frank Finlay work against the stereotype, underplaying so deftly that we are hoodwinked by the character’s feigned honesty as well, even though we know better.

Geoffrey Kent takes the latter course quite successfully as Iago. Kent has a very sunny disposition as an actor that helps him sell his manipulations, and a deference that really lets Macon take the lead in many scenes, which works well.

Desdemona is another frustratingly difficult role. As written, she’s cloyingly sweet and altruistic, so much so that sometimes at the end of a production her death comes as quite refreshing turn of events. The role has largely been played that way, sometimes branching into a standard variation in which she is just so damn sexy, so naturally attractive and sensual, that it seems inevitable that she will die for it.

Laura Baranik’s Desdemona seems in the beginning like a spoiled and oblivious young thing, and the chemistry between her and Macon was not substantial on opening night. But, as the evening progresses and Desdemona is ever more wronged, Baranik works the anger, shame, frustration, and hurt of the character well, giving us a woman struggling to understand her doom.

More notes – good old CSF regular Sam Gregory is here as Desdemona’s father Brabantio, and is a kick in the pants to watch. Often Brabantio is played as a quivering, ineffective dodderer, but Gregory is vital and vindictive as the deceived parent. Kudos to Rodney Lizcano, too, for getting the most out of the role of comic-relief Roderigo, Iago’s ally and dupe. Vanessa Morosco is a fine Emilia, Iago’s wife, one of the most outspoken, honest, and observant female characters in Shakespeare. She speaks truth to power and suffers the consequences.

Caitlin Ayer’s versatile, symmetrical set (it doubles as CSF’s “Much Ado About Nothing”’s) lets the traffic flow smoothly, essential in a long work like this – the show dragged a bit on opening night, but it can only get tighter. And Hugh Hanson’s costumes are splendid.

Quibbles? I love Anne Sandoe, but replacing the Doge of Venice with a Duchess really doesn’t fly. Plus, I miss the crazy, emblematic melted-Hershey’s-kiss-shaped hat a doge usually wears! Why do I know this? Why is it even important? I don't know. I don’t get out much.

“Othello” continues at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org.

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