Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Othello (2008)

This year our trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival began with Othello. My experience with the play only goes so far as a reading and a movie, so I was excited to have a company I’m fond of introduce me to the work.

Well.

Many individual components of the production were very good. First and foremost Dan Donohue, as Iago, was fantastic; he impressed as Horatio in last year’s Romeo and Juliet, and with this role has cemented his status in the incredibly prestigious List of Actors John Enjoys Seeing. (If you listen close, you can hear the off-stage trumpets sing their fanfare…) Hopefully Mr. Donohue stays this time – he’s got an active career above and beyond Ashland. Sarah Rutan gives a warm and rounded Desdemona without trying to shoehorn an entire post-feminist rewrite into the role. I agree that the character is difficult to accept from a modern perspective and is not terribly deep, but… well, there you have it. Also of particular note, Danforth Comins was a soulful Cassio. The costumes were lovely; the set was spare but effective.

Visually, the production was very interesting, but this is where the production started to go off the rails. The set was covered with vertical white fluorescent lights that were flashed suddenly a few times. In another review, Bill Varble says

[a]t first I thought they illuminated Iago’s thoughts, then Othello’s, then that they simply underscored intensely emotional moments. I never figured them out exactly, but they are a nice effect.

He and I agree, up to a point. They were arresting in the moment, but what did they mean? Likewise there was a center-stripe of black extending from the back to the front of the stage, with white flooring to either side. Ok, black & white, got it. The line rarely if ever actually divided anything, however, and the few times it did I came to assume it was mere happenstance, given the many missed opportunities to use it purposefully. And also likewise, the costumes were clearly swimming in the black/white motif, but with no discernible pattern to them – a character changes from black/white to pure black when they turn darker in purpose, but then another character lightens their garb in similar circumstances. Othello himself appears in a gold cloak at the beginning of the play, then dark-colored armor when entering Cyprus, but ends wearing a cream trench coat. Huh? Normally I might be a little embarrassed to admit that the visuals distracted me from some fine performances, but this particular production placed heavy emphasis on these elements.

An odd aside: Othello himself was played by newcomer Peter Macon. His performance was fine, and powerful, and subtle at the same time; he drags me down into Othello’s madness without me even noticing at first. Well done. However, at first I had some serious irritation that the role wasn’t in the hands of one of the company’s senior African Americans. As my partner and I talked about it, though, it occurred to me that OSF is color-blind enough in its casting that a landmark role for a black man is no longer a big deal. In other words, when we can have a black Prospero in The Tempest, or a black Paramore in The Philanderer, then what’s the big deal playing Othello? So fine, let the new guy* have it.

One final casting note: Christopher DuVal was Roderigo and, while he does occasionally get the non-comedic role, this was my first experience with him as a straight man (although Rodergio is a fool…). He was just fine; I hope to see more of him like this. He’s funny, but I guess I worry for him. I know, I know.

 

 

 

 

* – yes, the “new guy” has been on Broadway and won an Emmy, and in all ways seems to be a genuinely great actor. I’m not trying to diss him, I guess I’ve become a bit protective of the “home team” and don’t like to see them given short shrift. If you think I’m conflicted here, ask me about last year’s Cyrano.