Sunday, September 23, 2018

Griot Othello (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Griot Company has yet to fail to give quality in any production.  From that sentence you can expect a positive review, which this is indeed.  If that should suffice, go no further.  Their production of Othello is a good one, full of fine actors giving good performances and with a wonderful clarity of purpose nearly all good Shakespeare (and all good theatre) contains.

Now to into specifics...

Othello is easily my least favorite of the Bard's great plays.  For whatever reason I found most productions rather uninspiring, even with some truly amazing actors in the roles.  Worse, when I saw some interesting-sounding variations on the text (regular reader will know that attracts me like a bee to honey) the result proved uncompelling.  Until a few years ago when first the New Illyrian Players then Zombie Joe's did some productions which blew my mind.

Now Griot's Othello does something very close.  This company has won some real and deserved fame for inclusiveness of casting, with very positive results.  Here they do something similar, in surrounding the dark-skinned Moor (Malik B. El-amin) with those of Asian descent.  How marvelous!  More, and this is vital, they did not simply cast that way and leave it at that.  Neither did they just let that reflect in the costuming (which they do) and stop there.  No, what this production does is re-imagine why all these characters are Asian, then bring that re-imagining into the blocking, the gestures, the lives of the characters.

That marks my own real criticism of the show.  I wish they'd done it even more.  On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining how, that counts as nitpicking.

Mostly, though, let me praise the cast, especially the leads.  This sordid story as a plot only fascinates when we care and recognize those involved.  It begins with Iago (Hazel Lozano) and his--or in this case her--catspaw the foolish Rodrigo (Napoleon Tavale), as news of Othello's sudden marriage to Desdemona (Alexandria Hellquist) spreads.  Iago wants revenge for on Othello.  Here let me point out most productions try to find a deeper motive for Iago's expressed motive.  No problem with that, if the attempt succeeds.  Here we have a more straightforward and chilling interpretation--Iago as psychopath.  No trace of guilt.  No holding back on telling lies (that I actually believed Iago at times, knowing her words to be lies, speaks libraries right there).  Total ruthlessness amidst utter manipulative charm.  Less basic humanity than Hannibal Lecter, who at least has some sense of fairness.  Not so this Iago, not even a little bit.  This shows up perhaps most vividly not in the plot to destroy Othello, but in her relationship with her partner Emilia (Evie Abat).  Here we see a marriage which makes one's skin crawl, because we can see (unlike Othello and Desdemona) nothing sincere save the wife's devotion, despite her best wisdom.

Of course this appeals so much to me because this couple always seems like the counterpoint to the main one.

Likewise this Desdemona makes for a fine, layered character, a younger and less cautious version of Emilia in many ways.  She thinks herself strong.  She has that potential.  In fact her sincere, passionate naivete simply makes things worse in the context of the never-married, brilliant yet unwise man she has fallen for.

Rather than go on and on about all the cast--Paul Wong, and Caesar Cipriano including--who bring the story and the specifics of this tale to life with considerable skill and (most important) truth, let me note what makes this so topical.  Because under Malik's direction this Othello focuses on the tragedy of trust--how we yearn to trust, and seek to be trustworthy, so often failing in both.  Worse, we sometimes trust too easily or second guess ourselves, both leading to catastrophe.  Yet the play has no easy answers for this very human conundrum.  Mr. Shakespeare and his collaborators in this cast and company know better than to offer simple answers.  So the tale remains, an echo in our souls, after we leave the theatre.

Othello plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sundays at 4pm, until October 7, 2018 at the Actor's Company, 916a North Formosa, Hollywood CA 90046.

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