Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Othello"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark


by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Foley

Scenic Design by Daniel O. Scully
Lighting Design by Ryan McGee
Costume Design by Erin Billings and Jessica Jackson
Sound Design by Catherine Crow
Original Music Composed by Martijn Hostetler
Stage Manager Katherine Wiswell

Othello............Bashir Salahuddin
Iago....................Nick Parillo
Desdemona...............Marg Jillson
Cassio...................Dan Berwick
Roderigo..........Baratunde Thurston
Emilia.................Erin Billings
Lodovico...........Christian Rolleau
Duke.....................Kate Taylor
Bianca..................Sara Newbold
Gratiano..................Jerry Ruiz
Montano................Michael Roiff
Brabantio..............Chuck O'Toole

Tim Foley and the Harvard-Radcliffe Summer Theatre have made this a very swift, very inventive, very contemporary, very physical, very impassioned version of "Othello" that ignores poetry in an effort to get the story told. The effort and imagination and attention to details are undeniable, but the very interesting parts all have little holding them together. There is a lot of shiny glitter without a core.

Take the set. Daniel O. Scully has provided a big, square three-quarter-thrust shiny white platform, with thin copper pipes indicating a door at each corner, and the whole roofed over by four bright copper pipes converging at a central apex. The fourth back wall is a rippled mirror in which actors and audience can find themselves reflected. It's abstract purity is strikingly beautiful, but it's a set for any play, not at all relevant to this play. For the second half, Scully adds a white-spread double-bed with gauzy black draperies and an ordinary chair as the only Othello-specific props in the entire show.

Take the sound track. Martijn Hostetler wrote a lot of music for this show, mostly soft waves of full-orchestra emotion building tensions that subside rather than resolving. Then either he or Sound Designer Catherine Crow tosses in garish quotations of "The Star-Spangled Banner" "Stars & Stripes Forever" and the opening fanfare from stock moviehouse intro-bits. There are also specific sounds that comment on the action: the slate-sharp shriek of a hawk, a lion's roar, or the pastoral peepings of songbirds, as well as police sirens and bullhorn chatter. These are less coordinated than distracting.

Director Foley has made Othello a Marine general commanding a Venetian fleet against a Turkish force wrecked by tornadoes, so the real wrangle is a peacetime squabble over seniority in promotions. He smooshes all the minor characters into faceless caricatures of seamen and officers whose gruff guttural barking, rather than painting a background, makes most of their lines incomprehensible and thus irrelevant.

Part of the comprehensibility problem is the pace and the vehemence with which every line is uttered. Most exchanges are blocked with faces an inch from one another, and lines are spewed forth with such a breakneck intensity neither speaker nor interlocutor nor audience has time to contemplate their sense. The fast ferocity of delivery forces a physicality on every actor and every scene with few thoughtful exceptions.

Nick Parillo plays Iago as a nervous, aggressive firecracker that cannot help but explode with jumps and spasms. His right hand saws the air with forceful chops and punches accompanying every syllable until even his pinkie finger does dances all its own. He is pure hatred, as abstract as the set, and restlessly paces when not leaning into a verbal attack.

Marg Jillson's Desdemona is an air-head, a pampered princess sex-drunk and oblivious to anything but herself. Her habitual gesture is to drape both her hands about every man's neck and lean up for kisses, and she consistently confuses the public conference room with her bedroom.

As Cassio, Dan Berwick is an eager young officer, perfectly suited to his crew-cut and uniform, gullibly playing by the book. As Roderigo, Baratunde Thurston is the ultimate pigeon ripe for plucking, believing flattery almost before it is slathered on.

Oddly, it is Bashir Salahuddin's Othello --- a character often shrunk to Iago's second-banana as nothing but his own jealousy --- who escapes this rush toward pure abstraction. In uniform he is as precisely commanding as Colin Powell, in mufti an old soldier giddily in love, in deception powerfully outraged, in vengeance a smoldering, implacable murderer. He is less Iago's plaything than victim of a soldier's ignorance in social matters. He too rushes some speeches, like everyone his lunges from state of mind to state of mind are total and exaggerated, but he is the only one allowed brooding silences or slow, thoughtful, deliberate passages.

There are two puzzling details in this production. When Othello appears after finally decided to kill the wife he believes unfaithful, he has draped about his shoulders an American flag, and he handles it almost ritually. The deed done, his deception made clear even to Othello himself, his lieutenant Michael Cassio secretly presses a dagger into his hands with a curt, quick nod, and when Othello uses it to kill himself Cassio, lying, says he didn't know he had a weapon. Cassio's gesture toward his dishonored commander, and perhaps even that of the flag, make sense in the context of a Marine Corps code. They would make even more sense if this were a movie, in which the backgrounds and establishing-shots had made this ambiance a continual subliminal presence in the story.

But this isn't a movie, remaking the Bard in modern terms. It's a play on a stage written in language over three hundred well-worn years old. Very little of that language struts and frets this extremely abstract stage.


"Othello" (till 1 August)
Loeb Ex, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE

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