Saturday, October 09, 2010


Interpretation of OTHELO at GLTF open to debate

OTHELLO, a version of which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theatre Festival, is considered by many literature scholars to be Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. Of all of the Bard's writings, it most shows what happens when love turns bad because of unfounded jealousy.

Shakespeare's use of tragedy in such plays as ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, HAMLET , JULIUS CAESAR, KING LEAR, MACBETH, ROMEO AND JULIET differs from the traditional western world definition put forth by Aristotle. In the Aristotelian perception, the protagonist, the tragic hero, must be an admirable but flawed character, with whom the audience sympathizes. He is often guided by outside forces to follow a preset path. Think Oedipus, who we feel empathy for in spite of his misguided love for his mother, and his murder of his father. Shakespeare's tragic protagonists are capable of both good and evil because of the Bard's belief in the doctrine of free will, wherein people make decisions, not because the gods have willed they take prescribed actions, but make the decision which leads to their own doom.

When Othello, the only Blackman in the Venetian state and a superstar general, appoints the Florentine Michael Cassio to a prominent position, Iago his right hand man, in a fit of jealous rage, plots to undermine Othello. Thus, starts a series of events that leads to calamity. Iago manipulates all other characters by trapping them in an intricate net of lies. He achieves this by getting close to the people and playing on their weaknesses while portraying himself as "honest" Iago.

This is one of the Bard's character driven shows, centering on six individuals: Othello, a Moor who is a general in the Venetian army; his wife Desdemona; his lieutenant, Cassio; his trusted ensign Iago; Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's maidservant; and, Roderigo, a fool who is in love with Desdemona. We clearly see the character of Othello choosing to believe his friend Iago, to reject his wife due to the lies told by Iago, and make foolish decisions that are his own doing, thus displaying the free will in which Shakespeare believed.

OTHELLO centers on such themes as love, jealousy and betrayal. And, because it also has overtones of racism and political intrigue, it has a modern feel. Director Risa Brainin has used these overtones to stage the show in modern dress and use General American pronunciation.

Besides the format and pronunciation, Brainin has made other decisions, some of which are problematic. The pace of the show is languid, often lulling the audience, before it explodes in the final several scenes. There is a strong question over what might be called the “soap opera” approach of some of the performers' acting styles and line interpretation.

In order for the audience to feel empathy for Othello, the tragic hero, we must accept him as a real person, with real feelings. David Alan Anderson's Othello, is not a real person, he is more a caricature, whose emotions are on the surface, who shows little real love connection for Desdemona, and who is often hard to understand because of slurring and often being inarticulate. He does not display the power of a man who leads armies and is envied by all about him.

David Antony Smith is a delightful Iago. But should Iago be getting laughs? He is the villain. He is the manipulator who must be so real, so innocent (he is usually played as a sweet natured young blue-eyed blond). As is, it is hard to believe that a wise and worldly Othello would fall prey to the obvious manipulations of Smith's Iago.

Kevin Crouch's Cassio is so young and played as being so naïve that why a great nation would eventually turn over it's military to him is a puzzlement.

On the other hand, Sara Bruner (Desdemona) and Laura Perrotta (Emilia) are right on target with their character development. We feel pity for Desdemona as she is unfairly accused and pays dearly for Iago's maniacal, self-centered manipulations. We clearly see what happens when Emilia sees her husband for what he is and takes a stand against him.

Russell Metheny's set design caused problems. Though building a cage around the characters, showing them trapped in their decisions, was effective, the vertical pillars often blocked the facial expressions of the actors as they moved around the stage and made for some strange blocking.

Throughout, the fight and death scenes were obviously choreographed to the degree that they looked unnatural. One of the deaths even got a laugh from the audience the night I saw the show, because of the lack of believability.

Written in five acts, productions vary in their format. GLTF has decided to divide, what turns out to be close to a three hour production, into two long segments.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Whether audience members will like, dislike or tolerate GLTF's OTHELLO will depend on their view regarding how Shakespearean tragedy should be interpreted. I, personally, do not like my tragedies presented as soap operas.