Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Moor the merrier

Back in early October Weisenheimer saw Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and in a review written by my Sweetie, the Scorer, we opined that the Tragedy of the Moor was in the lower quartile of works by the Bard. Today, the young upstarts at Seattle's Balagan Theatre have us re-thinking that opinion. Last night we saw Balagan's production of Othello, directed by Ryan Higgins, and came away delighted.

Our main beef with The Moor is that for a supposedly great military leader he's awfully easy to dupe. But Mike Dooly's Iago gets inside the head of Johnny Patchamatla's Othello in an exchange my Sweetie points out from Act III, scene iii, in which Iago says of Desdemona,

She did deceive her father marrying you, and when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks, she lov'd them most.

Iago plays on Othello's own insecurities, planting seeds of self doubt about the Moor's worthiness to marry Desdemona in a way that we've never seen come off quite so well on the stage before.

Part of the reason may be that the Balagan cast has the advantage of intimacy. While at OSF Othello was played in the 1,200-seat outdoor Elizabethan Stage, Balagan is a tiny basement black box on Capitol Hill that might seat 100. Swordplay in your lap is theater up close and personal.

That is to take nothing away from virtuoso performances by Patchamatla and Dooly. Patchamatla has the main Othello prerequisite, i.e., fabulous pipes. He's pumped some iron in his time, too, and was a commanding presence on the stage. He was able to temper his jealous rage with some true feelings of remorse and sadness. Dooly makes his Iago the most nearly likable of any I've seen. He plays the villain with a true warmth and charm, and everyone he manipulates is his best, dearest friend. Sure, Iago is a cretin, but Dooly pulls some looks in the end as if to suggest this wasn't the way he wanted it to turn out at all; that he really wanted everyone to wind up with egg on their faces, not in a pile of corpses on Desdemona's bed. (The text doesn't support that interpretation; after all, it is Iago who, in Act IV, suggests that poisoning is too good for Desdemona and that Othello ought to strangle his wife.)

The set was spare, with the main props being several wooden boxes that served as modular furniture. In a great touch, director Higgins has Iago be the only one to move the boxes. As the villain manipulates all of the characters, so too is he the one manipulating the stage itself, getting all the boxes to where they need to be for each scene. Even during the prelude Dooly was wandering the stage moving the boxes from place to place. He was planning every step of the way.

The rest of the cast were solid and real. Weisenheimer would especially single out Nik Perleros as Cassio, Terri Weagant as Desdemona, and Jason Harber as Roderigo.

Sadly, the final performance of Othello is tonight. But Balagan shows great promise. It's a relatively new company being run by a youthful lot willing to go out on a limb. In January they'll be staging Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. A play. Within a play. Within an insane asylum. Check it out.

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