Tuesday, July 12, 2016

ZJU's Othello (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Seems like I've been reviewing a lot of Othellos lately.  Like, a startling number.  There's something in the air, in the common atmosphere of this time and place...in fact there have even been productions I missed.  Yet I've seen a lot.

Othello at ZJU, directed by Josh T. Ryan, is a re-staging of an amazing production of this play last year.  I reviewed it then, and eagerly awaited what a second iteration with a somewhat different cast would evolve into.  Imagine my delight at seeing an improved show!  Not a retread nor a copy but something new, coming from the same sensibilities and enthusiasm as the first!

Photo Credit: Josh T. Ryan
Forgive while I pontificate for a moment or two.  Othello is my least favorite of Shakespeare's great tragedies and in the last two years, having seen several excellent productions and/or experiments into the text (this one counts as both) the reason why became clear. Most companies do the play by focusing on the plot.  Yet the plot at its heart is little more than a tawdry domestic tragedy about stupid people doing terrible and stupid things.

However, the plot does not beat at the center of this play.  Rather the world, the mise-en-scene, the environment waits for exploration.  Not what happened to these characters, but why?

In this, Ryan and his ensemble explored that very question with a brilliant showmanship.  Relocated the whole story to the world of 1980s fashion, they immerse us in a world of raw and bottomless vanity.  Here not a single life is really worth living because hardly one second of it has ever been examined.  To make an error marks not human frailty, but actual SIN.  To be found out, to be seen as wrong is a CARDINAL sin, demanding the most extreme of reactions.  Like all great tragedies, the story is full to the brim with fools.

Photo Credit: Josh T. Ryan
Very pretty, very stylish fools to be sure.  After all, they dwell in a cosmos where beauty and entertainment as well as indulgence infuse every moment. Othello (Vanessa Cate) is a fashion designer, quite simply a combination of monarch and god--object of worship, favor and of course envy.  To be God's Favorite makes Desdemona (Amanda Dyba) a target, whether she realizes it or not--and no, she doesn't. Rather she exults in her position, thinking it eternal.  The God she worships in turn worships her, after all.

Against all this stands and weaves the brilliant, petulant Iago (Vincent Cusimano) who rises to take the place of all whom Othello favors.  The bitchiest and most seductive--or at least desired--model of them all, Iago struts upon the stage equal parts Kardashian and Fallen Angel.  His unwilling ally in all this, wife Emilia (Anna Gion), joined by an original character of a fashion photographer (Michelle Snyder) and of course others including Robbie McDonald (who has wonderful singing voice--he is the entre act as we wait for the play to begin, a show in itself), Kevin Alain, Renahy Aulani, Michelle Danyn, Peter Stickles, and Joel Patiño Corona.

Did I mention this has been re-imagined as a musical?  Well, it includes a lot of songs, anyway.  And pretty much everyone in the cast seems to be sleeping with everyone else sooner or later. But even listing all the dizzying--and wonderful--liberties taken doesn't really convey the fun, the dazzle, the humor and the very real horror of this production.  As time goes by, my favorite Shakespeare productions increasingly are those with a twist that takes me further into the play. This does precisely that--into a petty, dangerous, unbelievably glamorous and decadent story that of course can end no other way.  Which is sad--and yet, funny.

No small feat!

Othello plays on Fridays and Saturday nights at 8:30pm until July 30, 2016, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood, CA 91601.

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