Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Othello"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Joe Coyne


Playwright William Shakespeare
Director David Wheeler
Production Conceived by Yuri Yeremin
Scenic Design Riccardo Hernanadez
Costume Design Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design John Ambrosone
Sound Design David Remedios
Original Music Samrat Chakrabarti
Additional Music James Caran and Nick Niles
Stage Manager Thomas S. Kauffman

OTHELLO, the Moor of Venice John Douglas Thompson
DESDEMONA, his wife Mirjana Jokovic
MICHAEL CASSIO, his lieutenant Benjamin Evett
BIANCA, a courtesan Amber Alison
IAGO, the Moor's Ensign Thomas Derrah
EMILIA, Iago's wife Karen MacDonald
BRABANTIO, Desdemona's father Will LeBow
LODOVICO, kinsman to Brabantio Jon Bernthal
RODERIGO, a Venetian gentleman Ken Cheeseman

Samrat Chakrabarti
Nick Niles
James Caran

In the recent news a high profile Gloucester doctor, cross dressing and working to gain breasts, putting a single deadly shot into his wife, could not at his trial beat the rap of murder with an insanity defense. He was apparently too sane. This would not be the case in ART's production of the death of Desdemona ("Othello"). The Moor could beat the rap and more. John Douglas Thompson plays the Moor general as a crazy rather than as crazed. Not that Thompson was not effective in delivering this image, he assuredly was. It may well have been the conceived idea of Yuri Yeremin: but a crazy Moor lessens the play's impact on the audience: the idea to be conveyed is we all can act crazed; we all are capable of evil deeds without knowing how we arrived at them. If the audience perceives a killer as crazy they are mostly off the hook, for none of us, as crazy as we might really be, chose to own or claim that position. We reflectively observe coldly and without any personal projection onto the character: that is him, that's not me.

Othello a powerful General in Venice is newly married to Desdemona. He is deceived by his loyal ensign, Iago that she has been unfaithful. The method Iago chooses to plant suspicion is fertilizing Othello's receptive mind with mere questions and wonderings; spiking him with an occasional direct lie. We watch as Othello slides into the only course he as a soldier seems to understand.

Adding immensely to the story is that Othello is black and Desdemona white. Would the play be as powerful and unsettling if the parties were of the same race?

Thomas Derrah as a delightful, insidious Iago signals his moves with a physicality directed within his hands. Derrah in another of his encompassing performances exhibits his control of a Iago improvising his way to the destruction of the Moor. The actions so clear to us in the results, we watch as Iago's wake overturns and destroys most of the other named characters in the play. With his body never lying, Derrah's movements keep Iago on the go as the character structures and implements his plan. Watching Mr. Derrah we see Iago's enjoyment of Othello's pain as salt is poured in the many small wounds opened with the Moor's co-operation. Nowhere does Iago foresee he is boxing himself in and he cannot make it out alive. Or if he realizes it, it is of no concern.

At a more recent reading of the play with a group of actors, Iago's motivation was discussed and left at the level of his statements: looked over as lieutenant and a possible liaison between the Moor and Iago's wife. Even Iago dismisses these motivations as he displays an energy that moves only toward Othello's destruction. It is brave of the storyteller, Shakespeare when all is almost over to have Othello demand the same information we wish:

Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body? to which Iago enigmatically says, "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word."

As I have been for many years, I ponder still Iago's reasoning.

It has been just over two years since John Thompson played "Othello" with the Trinity Repertory Company. It was there he strangled Jennifer Mudge as Desdemona in a quality production. To so soon repeat the effort might tell us something of the actor's leaving unaccomplished ideas on the green room floor: something additional that he could reach for with the assistance of Yuri Yeremin's inspiration and David Wheeler's direction. I see it as a bit of a stutter step with yet another accomplished but not advanced performance. In many ways I prefer the Trinity production. Othello is a role that John for his own reasons might have awaited to revisit. But this is not the view that acting is a job and you take what comes along and imbue it with as much quality as you can.


If you want visual imagery then this is a masterful production seizing opera techniques to gain control and emphasize the central image. The set designed by Riccardo Hernanadez has reflecting panels covering the rear of the stage so angled they catch all the action, but not the light, with water patterns flowing over them. The actors talk to and deal with the panels giving reflection to their character's lack of reflection. You cannot ignore the mirror effect. Large drapes are physically dragged across the floor of the stage representing the Mediterranean coast or to cover the very few props used on stage. These drapes float at times above the stage and create motion and with their reflection alter the total image. During intermission the draping exuded jealousy with its green aura. The stage was in super thrust and underlit to great effect. It made the scenes of inquisition stark white to heightened effect.

Some directorial choices which increased the play's effectiveness were the extreme violence exhibited early on in the play: Othello severe choking of Iago precursing his subsequent behavior; Iago's equally violent choking of Emilia in recovering the handkerchief where the stage direction says "snatches". Another was the brutality of the drunken Cassio (Benjamin Evett) and the injury he caused when he was on watch. This elevated the incident to one where there could not be forgiveness and reinstatement in the morning: an event Othello could not overlook and where Desdemona's interference was so much more damning.

Like someone arriving at the correct train station going in the opposite direction, Shakespeare has led us with misdirection. He has used "honesty" 52 times to no use of "dishonest". Like a war one can label Operation Enduring Peace. This is part of what is wondrous strange about "Othello".

So take money out of your purse (there are very few performances left) and enjoy.

Joe Coyne

"Othello" (23 November - 27 January) EXTENDED
64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE
1(617) 547-8300

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide