Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Othello (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Although, honestly, don't you know the story of Othello? Really? Okay, but still...

This last summer I had the great good fortune to see the Illyrian Players' production of Odessa as part of the Hollywood Fringe and felt gobsmacked.Upon learning they would round out their season with (honestly) my least favorite Shakspeare major tragedy, I looked forward to having my eyes opened.

I was not disappointed. Othello, one of the Bard's later works, demonstrates the ambiguity and mixed feelings of a mature writer. Not the relatively straightforward power of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night or Julius Caesar. No, in this one the plot emerges out of un-stated feelings and un-spoken events. Anyone who's seen more than one production of it can tell you how puzzled we feel about some unanswered questions. Why is Iago's doing this? What in the title character makes him so prone to such sudden and extreme jealousy? No less important--what lies behind Desdemona's behavior, which surely dooms her under the circumstances? More than any other production I've seen or read about, this one answers those questions! Nor in a vapid, surface way. From a dramaturg's point of view, it helps to recall Iago is a mature version of Richard III, the villain who seems to share his villainy with the audience, yet reveals so little of himself. Also let us recall by now Shakespeare had written his Sonnets to that mysterious "Dark Lady,' as well as recounting the madness of such characters as King Lear, Macbeth and Shylock. More, he'd looked at the world through a woman's eyes, especially in terms of Viola and Rosalyn.

Director Carly D. Wreckstein does much more than weave a story of individual passions and error. We see in this production an entire world, masked and sheathed in black and white. A world where color--especially blood red--must be washed away as soon as possible. Even the color in a hankerchef heralds death and destruction. This Venice embodies a habit of the inauthentic, which permeates every decision. And in creating world in particular I feel a need to praise Maggie Blake as both a Clown and as the Duke--two roles ever so appropriately shared in this production. Her Duke in particular, complete with Poirot-moustache and personal servant, sets the tone for this world, one of pageant "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." But praise goes to the entire ensemble for what they've brought on stage, including Emma Servant as Bianca as well as Richard Abraham as the dual role Brabantio/Gratiano.
But the leads tend to carry Shakespeare as well as other plays with large casts. Zach Brown is the title character, who manages to do what many actors cannot--both dignity and raw pain, and also manages to create specific rage on stage rather than general anger (esoteric as that sounds, it remains vital). Ironically enough, Zack Hamra plays Iago, one of the juiciest and most mysterious of the Bard's characters--a sociopath who seems somehow a little bit more. I found myself fascinated with how utterly sincere his Iago's lies came across, yet even more by the fact he didn't seem to be really enjoying himself at all. Rather, here was a man obeying his own demons, ones he did not understand. As with the rest of this show, no easy answers. Hence, very compelling theatre!
Ditto the two female leads (and yes, there are two). Katelyn Myer's Desdemona, no less than others in this weird mask-laden society, comes across as something she is not. Despite her dress, her seeming confidence, her courage this young lady remains naive to the point of self-destruction. Hers is the trust and faith without blemish. Little wonder she's not long for this world. Small wonder Othello adores her, in many ways worships her, and like her has so little emotional depth (honestly the pair of them are amazingly, mutually blind). Angela Sauer's Emilia gives that part its full potential weight for the first time in my experience. Not an accident that in this horrific tragedy that unfolds, so many tears as well as so much blood would have gone un-spilt had anybody asked for the low-born woman's counsel.
While I"m at it, allow me to praise costumer Katie Jorgenson (whom I have worked with and recommend highly anyway), lighting designer Colleen Dunleap as well as fight captain Micah Watterson. All the elements of this production wove together into a memorable performance, one that pleasantly taught me about a play which hitherto I had not understood. Kudos to everyone involved!

Othello plays Oct. 31 – Nov. 22, 2014 Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 pm in the Elephant Space at Theatre Asylum, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, California 90038. Tickets are $20 (save on Nov. 7 which is Pay-What-You-Can) and you can make reservations here.

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