Monday, October 6, 2008

OSF: Othello

I am not among those who find great possibilities of interpretation in Othello. It seems pretty straightforward to me. And with me in the audience the actors playing Othello and Desdemona are burdened with a lot of unfortunate cliches and associations, which is neither their fault nor fair. But there it is. For instance, I can never read or see the play without thinking of the exquisite performance turned in by Derek McGrath and Shelley Long in Homicidal Ham. Our Othello last night played his "fits" with a twitchy right arm with a mind of its own that he would clamp down on with the other hand, putting me in mind of Dr. Strangelove. So I will suppress my giggles and leave it to others to sing the praises of Peter Macon as Othello and Sarah Rutan as Desdemona.

However, I find Iago and Emilia as fascinating as I find Othello and Desdemona uninteresting, and Dan Donohue and Vilma Silva did not disappoint. Iago is Shakespeare's best villain and Donohue continually danced right up to the line of making us think there might be some real, human, redeeming, if twisted feeling inside him, before showing us again that he is an inveterate fiend. Donohue was the perfect blend of believably likeable, a little creepy, and wholly malevolent.

Emilia is the truth teller in this tragedy. In a play full of deceipt and delusion (Desdemona's romantic conceit, Othello's self delusion, Iago's malicious deceit) she alone has a genuine capacity for self-awareness and grasp of consequences, which is saying something in a play where, as my sweetie the Weisenheimer said, everyone is talking about themselves to themselves but no one's talking to each other. Silva's Emilia is the ballast that gives the final acts heft and direction. Silva makes acting look effortless and is searingly intense. Between this season and last we saw her turn in three fully embodied performances of three very different women (Emilia, Katherina in Taming of the Shrew, and Beatrice in A View from the Bridge), and she was riveting in each.

But I'm told I can't log a review of Othello without commenting on, well, Othello. So here it is. I think Peter Macon is a fine actor playing a very difficult part on a challenging stage. I think in that situation actors can fall back on virtuosity. Which may impress, but does not necessarily move. But the way his bald head was steaming in the 45 degree night-time air was super cool.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced Othello this year on the outdoor Lizzy on a spare and gorgeously lit set. Here at OSF the set, props, and costumes may or may not have anything to do with each other or the time and place in which the play is set, but they will always be magnificent. In this production, they mostly don't relate. The minimalist, gray, and dramatically lit set suggests a modern setting, but really you are free to think of the play in any time and place where the women wore long full skirts and the men high-waisted breeches with suspenders and fancy Burberry overcoats. And the musicians wandering around sometimes playing and sometimes lip-syncing (you know what I mean) to a recorded track made no sense. Generally our directors at OSF do a fine job of, well, dramatizing all that text, but there were moments where the actors seemed at loose ends.

So while I'm not catching director Lisa Peterson's vision for the context of the characters and action, I do, however, like to think she understood who this play is really about, with a stunningly staged ending. A bloody Iago staggers to his feet, turns away from the "tragic loading of this bed," and center stage takes one halting lurch toward the audience with a look of complete unrepentant malevolence on his face, and midstep there is sudden blackout.

The protocol at OSF is for the entire company to assemble and take their bows together, with the stars noted only in their placement among the assembly. This is one of those times when I missed the opportunity to acknowledge the actors individually and recognize, as Iago and Emilia are the muscle of the play, Donohue and Silva are the stars of the show.


Lisa said...

It sounds like a bit of heaven. And the parallel between Othello and Dr.Strangelove is brilliant! The Earl of Oxford would be proud.

gscheiderer said...

My sweetie nailed that review! That steaming head thing was amazing, and I bet they don't teach that in actor school.

As for Iago being the Bard's best villain, two words: Richard III. Still, Iago is right up there, and it gives me an idea for a new reality TV show: Battle of the Villains! Meanies real and fictional duke it out to see who can be the baddest of the bad, and every week the American people vote someone off the show for being "too nice." Awesome!

John said...

Hope you don't mind a butt-in (found your blog through a google search. Hiya!) but I've really enjoyed reading your reviews.

@gscheiderer - I've never really thought that Richard III was a villain, although I'm not trained in theater at all so maybe I'm quibbling over settled things. He's clearly evil, but he's also the protagonist of the story and we're meant to marvel at his ascension. (With a sick stomach, perhaps, but still...)

Did you see all of your plays in one trip? That's a lot of theater!

~ John

gscheiderer said...


Not a "butt in" at all... welcome and thanks for your kind words. Glad you're enjoying it and that somebody is actually reading this stuff!!

Perhaps just semantics... I think Richard is evil and a villain. As background, we saw a production of Richard III at Ashland in 2005, our first year attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and my sweetie and I both view it as the single greatest theater production we've ever seen... and we've seen a lot of them.

Yes, we saw all of these plays in one visit this month: seven plays in six days! Can't beat it!