Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Othello/Desdemona (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I really believe there's something in the air.  Within the last two years at least four productions of Shakespeare's tragedy about the Moor of Venice have seen production in LA to my knowledge, with at least one other play about a man playing Othello.  Now in City Garage's production, titled Othello/Desdemona, the play is deconstructed along a variety of directions.  It should make for a fairly dull, intellectual exercise.  What we get instead is much more like an ancient Greek tragedy through a very modern lens -- people talking about issues, about ideas, and what they say changes lives.  Their lives.

For better and for worse.

Charles A. Duncombe does not simply edit Othello but rather uses it as a seed.  It literally begins with the image which frankly elicits so much shock from characters -- and, let us admit, audience members.  Othello, very much Black (in theory he could be Turkish, or in some sense Arabic), in bed making love to his pale white bride.  Then, the climactic murder scene, with Othello (RJ Jones) beginning some of the regretful lines of the Bard, only to shift abruptly into modern speech.  Desdemona (Kenzie Kilroy) pushes the pillow off her face and tries to chat with her husband.  As a segue between the modern and the classic, we get a glance at what this couple might have been in our own time.  No so surprising to find Desdemona bored with Cyprus, eager to find a way to express her own individuality, frustrated at her husband's lack of response.  He knows things -- history, archeology, the like.  But he is a soldier, an honorable profession he claims.  That he himself feels as frustrated as she eventually emerges.

Credit: Paul Rubenstein
This altered context allows directer Frederique Michel and the entire cast (as well as the design--Duncombe again) a dazzling exploration of the familiar story. A series of conversations replace the convoluted plot of the original, focusing instead on the tensions and ideas between a mere five characters.  Iago (Andrew Loviska) for example notes Othello's assumption of a White identity, playing Devil's (or really Angel's) Advocate for recognizing racial injustice.  In fact, Othello wants more.  He longs to leave the military and enter the government of Venice -- a seat on the Council.  To win that, he literally dons white face and spouts right wing excuses for ignoring racism.  After all, he wants to get ahead.  To be more, as does Desdemona.  But, tellingly, as immature and whiny as she sometimes seems, she immediately dislikes her husband giving up his identity just because he has a meeting the Doge (Bo Roberts).

All of which could come across as very academic, especially the dialogue about specific issues.  Yet all of this remains dramatic.  People want things, fear never getting them.  Their emotional lives spill over and begin to get us--the audience--wet.  Metaphorically.

Credit: Paul Rubenstein
So in Othello/Desdemona, the countdown to tragedy actually feels tragic.  We know after all this play might end differently.  Perhaps this time, Othello won't do it, won't murder his Love.  Shakespeare wrote that story, but this isn't his story.  Or is it?  Aren't the same forces at work today as then?  Not merely the weird fetishizing of the Alien Other, the glass ceiling of ambition, the impatience of those in power, but also the same rules of what Love is supposed to be?  Rules all but impossible to follow?

At the end, as the title characters relive the climax of The Play (if not this play), Iago and his wife Emelia (Anthony M. Sannazzaro) describe events -- not merely actions and words but emotions, revelations, fears and hopes.  To her of course this is also a story of their love--Iago and Emilia.  So her chronicle tells of what was almost perfect, ruined by a flaw that need not exist at all.  Her words of an alternate kind of Love, that desires just happiness for the beloved, first and foremost just that, ached with long sadness.  Just as his description of what leads to murder brims with a frantic glee.  Almost pornographic.

When this play ends, we get a startlingly wide spectrum of understanding not of the events but why, and how those involved feel.  It makes for a different kind of excitement -- that of a mystery solved, a poem finally understood, an insight into fellow human creatures attained.

Othello/Desdemona plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until May 29, 2016 at the City Garage,
Bergamot Station Arts Center, Building T1,2525 Michigan Ave.,Santa Monica, CA 90404 Warning: Contains Nudity

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