Wednesday 13 July 2016

Othello mines modern themes via U.S. Civil War
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Black-vs-white.Women worldwide victimized by men. Men plotting and scheming for power and favour in high places. Love, Jealousy. Betrayal. Racism. Treachery. Revenge. It's a Brexit world, a world rife with jihadislam thrill-killers, a world where in "polite society" citizens daily shoot one another to settle domestic and racial grievances, No question, Shakespeare's Othello offers continued relevance and ponderables more than 400 years after it was written.

The play is mostly about Iago, an ensign, who is livid at his military boss Othello, a decorated war hero. Othello's an outsider of colour, an "other" from a distant land. Elizabeth I would have labeled him a "blackamoor". But he has promoted a fresh-out-of-military-school soldier, Cassio, to be his lieutenant over Iago. With malevolent design, Iago sets out to destroy his boss, all the while protesting what an "honest" man he is. This charade the gullible Othello blithely believes. 

And the best way to go about this, Iago schemes, is to let loose "the green-eyed monster" of jealousy in Othello, get him to think his enticing newbie wife Desdemona is sleeping with Cassio. It's another "bodies everywhere" ending that WS is famous for.

How it's all put together : Albeit there is no record of a freed slave becoming more than a foot soldier in Abraham Lincoln's Union Army, under Director Bob Frazer Othello is a Union general who has just taken the merchant Brabantio's daughter Desdemona, secretly, as his wife. With miscegenistic malice Iago taunts Brabantio into action : "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe," he cries, then shouts peremptorily : "Arise, arise ! / Awake the snorting citizens with the bell / Or else the devil will make a grandsire out of you." [These last two important lines -- linking the Moor's race with the devil -- were deleted by director Frazer, curiously, quite wrongly i.m.o.].

Meanwhile what in the Folio script was an imminent attack by Ottomans against Greek Cypriots, in this version it is an apprehended attack by the Confederates. Othello's wife convinces the Duke she and Othello have married for love, so he is cleared for duty and with his entourage ships out to Charleston, S.C. to quell the attacking Rebels. 

A gigantic storm thwarts the Confederate plans. Joyously the Union soldiers party on. Iago gets Cassio drunk and has Roderigo, who loves Desdemona, pick a fight with him. Othello strips Cassio of his rank as punishment. He takes Iago on as his Capo di tutti capi. Cassio pleads with Desdemona to be restored to Othello's good graces. Not going to happen else there'd be no play. All this done in Civil War period costumes to music predominantly banjo-&-ballad to underscore the Mason-Dixon setting.

What the show brings to the stage : It would be easy to put all kinds of political spin on Othello in respect of what WS "intended" to portray or say. That his casting of the protagonist as a person of colour was racist. That Othello's belief he was cuckholded by Desdemona results in -- and, obliquely, justifies -- an "honour killing" of his wife, his chattel. That power is as power does, and treachery is never an afterthought in such an algorithm. Good will? Honesty? Morality? Fie upon them all. These are all possible spins.

Personally I neither assign, nor not assign, such motives to our complex Bard. He was first and foremost an entertainer. And Othello is juicy violent escapism designed primarily to amuse and distract the rabble from their daily toils.

Set horseshoe-style at BotB's small Howard Family stage, the evil portrayed is as a result more accessible than it would be on the main stage. Still, I for one would have preferred to see Amir Ofek's spare, effective set with about ten feet lopped off the west edge and three more rows of seats added there to bring the action even closer.

Production values that add to the show : The decision taken to set the piece in the US Civil War epoch was a gimmick that worked, by-&-large. It hi-lites, obviously, the racial politics that are ever extant on the streets of America. [That said, curiously, Americans at the same time universally cheer their favourite professional baseball, basketball and football teams whose ranks usually feature some 70% non-whites. Go figure.] 

The Civil War costuming of Mara Gottler worked a bit better in concept than on the ground, to this eye. Too many variations of blue from what are reported as the classic colours : dark navy blue for the Union, battleship grey for the Confederacy. 

Between Director Frazer and Sound Designer Steve Charles, the music soundscape and wandering minstrel troupe circling around the entire back of the tent worked well indeed. 

Mr. Ofek's thrifty, functional set -- war-torn antebellum Greek columns blasted down to stumps as backdrop to simple Amish-like furniture in front of them -- all performed their functions just right.

Particular kudos to director Frazer for the final ten minutes of stage action. Absolutely sublime and captivating blocking, multi-scene interplay and emotional verve.

Acting pin-spots : The overall conceit of this unique interpretation is the role of Iago (Kayvon Kelly). Normally Iago is depicted as evil personified. Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Not here. To change motifs, Kelly's Iago is more a smug Donald Rumsfeld than the baneful and malignant Dick Cheney. And Gotta say! the interpretation is affecting, if not 100% infecting. The wholesale violence at show's end is a bit less compelling and demanding given a villain whose modus operandi has been a tone throughout that is ironic, flippant, and preening. Kelly's gesticulations and enunciation / projection, meanwhile, were simply superb.

As Desdemona Kayla Deorksen grabbed the audience's heart completely. Deliriously in love with Othello, she is wholly bemused by the green monster he becomes. As her maidservant Emilia, meanwhile, Luisa Jojic was a stunning and completely captivating personality. (Between them they deliver the sharpest dialogue WS composed in the piece.)

Luc Roderique as Othello does stellar work as the easily-spooked red-hot-lover-gone-sour-in-a-nanosecond character WS decided on -- an aspect of his script, meanwhile, that's always bothered me, same as WS's Lear does. 

David Warburton's Brabantio was simply scrumptious : no better angry father-in-law ever portrayed anywhere that I've seen. And Andrew Cownden's aging, pusillanimous Rodrerigo was a terrific re-do of the usual young man role that WS scripted.

Who gonna like :  Mr. Kelly's Iago interpretation coupled with the women's roles and their character delivery excellence are hands-down reasons to go see this show. Together they do clever service to what is often a script almost as oppressing as it is depressing. In their hands it's more of a dialogic puzzle the audience is challenged to decrypt. Most often patrons find themselves just succumbing in pain to all of Othello's staged misery. 

No, this is a performance that the tents at Vanier Park were made for. Summer festival Shakespeare devotees get every shekel of value out of this show thanks to its clever production techniques and just-right casting. 

Particulars :  Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Vancouver, B.C. At the Howard Family tent, Vanier Park. Performances : in repertory with Pericles until September 17th final curtain [see for schedules & ticket information]. Run-time 165 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Bob Frazer. Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Scenery Designer Amir Ofek.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director  Nicholas Harrison.  Sound Designer Steve Charles.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn. Apprentice Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart.  Directing Apprentice Jessica Nelson.  

Performers :  Ian Butcher (Duke, Gratiano).  Andrew Cownden (Roderigo).  Jeff Gladstone (Cassio).  Kayla Deorksen (Desdemona).  Luisa Jojic (Emilia).  Kayvon Kelly (Iago).  Sereana Malani  (Bianca).  Shaker Paleja (Montano).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Lodovico).  Luc Roderique (Othello).  David Warburton (Brabantio).  


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