06 October 2013

Othello at Playhouse on Park: A Review

    
     It's always a very good thing to experience talented actors plying their trade in one of Shakespeare's tragedies -- especially in an intimate space like Playhouse on Park.  There's a visceral pleasure in hearing words that, despite the distance in space and time, are so often ridiculously familiar.  And that familiarity of language, of course, only underscores the realization that human nature (its nobility, its comedy, and its baseness) has changed little from when the Bard wrote his plays.
     Thus one feels that the familiar plot, surrounding the conniving Iago (Tom Coiner) tricking Othello (RJ Foster), a veritable force-of-nature, into a raging jealousy over a perceived affair between his wife Desdemona (Celine Held) and his equally loyal lieutenant Cassio (Aidan Eastwood-Paticchio), could have happened yesterday...and, well, probably did.
     Set in contemporary times, in modern dress, this production directed by Sasha Bratt, attempts a slight reclamation of Iago with an opening scene in which the soldier, at some point in the recent past, has been captured and waterboarded by the enemy.  This, I assume, is meant to explain his own jealousy of Cassio and even of Othello himself; shouldn't he too be recognized in some way for his heroism, for his service to the state?
     But no matter the ultimate reason for his scheming, Coiner's Iago takes over the play while scaring us with the efficiency of his plot and entertaining us with the deviltry of his wit.  Yes, Othello and Desdemona love one another passionately -- even as things fall apart (the performances of both Foster and Held just get stronger and stronger as the play progresses), and Emilia (Jennifer Polansky) becomes the equal of Iago in all the best ways (in fact, the best scene in the production is the one between the two women in Desdemona's bed chamber), but scene after scene it is Iago that draws, and deserves, our attention.
     That said, I cannot help but admit that I struggled with the adaptation (a fast-paced 2+ hours) because the contemporary setting, and especially the costuming by Erin Kacmarik, resulted in a jumble of conflicting concerns that just did not work for me. 
     The setting for most of the show, as the set design by Christopher Hoyt suggests, is the battlefield lodgings (a.k.a., tents) of Othello and his army.  Now, in Elizabethan times, women, who may have been welcomed on the road with their military husbands, may not have had a lot of casual options in dress, but in the 21st century such choices abound, and I'm pretty sure that no matter how well-to-do, privileged, and/or sheltered Desdemona might be, she wouldn't be wearing the dresses that Ms. Held wears, much less the high heels.  She looks great, but she wouldn't be able to make it to the mess hall in those shoes.  (Indeed, her and Emilia's outfits make the snappy safari ensembles of Ava Gardner and Grace Kelley in Mogambo seem downright practical!) In a completely different vein, Othello wears the same khaki pants and black t-shirt whether he be fresh from a victorious battle in Cyprus or disturbed, in Venice, mid-lovemaking.
     This may seem, at first, like trifling (especially given how much period costuming can cost a company), but, as a result, the contemporary dress made me question Desdemona's willingness to let her husband boss her about, beat her, and eventually... (Yes, I'm well aware that there are women who stay in abusive relationships, but the submissive way Desdemona acts, even after Othello makes it clear of his severe displeasure with her, now rings a bit false.)  Even now, she may not leave him, but the conversation would be decidedly different.
      In the end, perhaps, this is the beauty of Shakespearean drama: making us all consider so much of our experience -- maybe even more than any of us expect.
     Othello opens the fifth main-stage season of the Playhouse and runs through October 20th.

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