Review: Othello

The Thinker by Rodin

We should probably become season subscribers of the Washington Shakespeare Theater. I am starting to lose count of the number of Shakespearean plays we have seen in its theater on 7th Street NW in Washington, D.C. (A new theater is under construction nearby.) Their theatrical productions easily outclasses those at the nearby Folger Shakespeare Theater, D.C.’s other Shakespearean theater. By many accounts, The Washington Shakespeare Theater is best Shakespearean theater in the United States.

While most of their shows, if they have not been excellent, have at least been uniformly very good, there have been some less than stellar performances. I was quite disenchanted with the last performance we saw there, The Tempest. In fact, I was so disenchanted that I was a bit leery to return to the theater any time soon.

Happily, the current production of Othello is the best of their productions that I have seen. If you live in the area and can snag a ticket before the show closes on October 30th, buy it and worry about how to pay for it later. This production should not be missed.

However, it does not plow much new ground for Avery Brooks, who plays Othello, a Moor general sent to fight the Turks on Cyprus. For those of you who do not inhabit the Star Trek universe, Brooks is probably best know as Commander (and later Captain) Benjamin Sisko of the space station Deep Space Nine. That series ended in 1999 after a six-year run, but Brooks’s performances of Othello date back to at least 1990. Speaking of Star Trek captains, Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean Luc Picard) also played Othello at the Shakespeare Theater in 1997-1998. (What is that? Stewart didn’t have the right skin tone? Not a problem, he was cast with an otherwise all African American cast. Let us hope though that William Shatner is never asked to perform the role.)

There is no question that Brooks plays a stellar Othello. He is clearly comfortable in the complex and demanding role. Othello though is not the primary character in this play. As those who have read or seen the play performed know, Iago gets most of the stage time. The evil and nefarious Iago sets into motion a complex plot where he plays the weaknesses and desires of the characters against each other, culminating in a plot to have Othello believe that his new wife Desdemona (Colleen Delany) is being unfaithful to him. As is true of most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, you can expect many dead people by the end of the performance. Iago is clearly one of Shakespeare’s most loathsome, yet fascinating characters. In this production, Patrick Page plays Iago. We frequent Shakespeare Theater attendees have seen him before, most recently in the title role of Macbeth. While he was good in that role, he reaches an acting zenith performing the role of Iago. Page seems to have a gift for playing complex and evil characters. While I am sure he has a long and successful career ahead of him, it is hard to imagine that he will be able to top his performance in this production.

In fact, there is not a fault in the entire casting. Brooks and Page play off each other perfectly, and Brooks’s performance is riveting. Nevertheless, make no mistake: it is Page who is center stage throughout most of the play. He brings an oozy creepiness to the role of Iago that I found spellbinding. Yet I was equally fascinated by the performance of some of the minor characters: Emilia (Lise Bruneau) as Iago’s suffering wife, and Bianca (Andrea Cirie) as the smoldering but suffering courtesan who falls in love with Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant.

Listening to the Old English in any of Shakespeare’s plays can be challenging to our modern ears. It is easy to miss important plot points. This is one reason why it is so critical that the actors in Shakespearean productions be excellent. The emotions and tone of voice that the actors convey must make up for the odd choices of words yet communicate the same meaning. I often feel like I miss 5-10% of any Shakespeare production because of language translation difficulties. However, I missed nothing in this production.

In fact, I sat enrapt throughout the entire performance. I felt mesmerized through much of it. A cell phone went off during the first half of the performance that annoyed me. Apparently, cell phones went off twice during the second half. I did not hear them at all. Indeed, there were times during the performance that I breathed in sharply. This was not from fright but simply because I was so drawn into the story that I was not getting sufficient oxygen!

The director Michael Kahn’s intimacy with the play over so many years is probably why this production works so well. It may be more convenient to watch thrillers at your local cinemaplex. Nevertheless, if you live in the Washington area, you will find this Shakespeare classic far better than any thriller you will find in at the cinema. When I think of all the Shakespearean plays that I have seen in my 48 years, this is the best production of them all.

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Review: The Tempest

The Thinker by Rodin

The Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC is renown for its productions. Arguably it is this country’s most renowned Shakespeare theater. My family and I have seen a number of their productions including Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They had all been home runs. So I had decent expectations that we’d also get a good show when we went to see their latest production, The Tempest.

Alas the show, which closed on Sunday, was a disappointment. My wife counts the Tempest as her favorite of the Shakespearean plays. I have to disagree with her. I considered it one of his lesser plays. I confess the cast in this production gave me ample reason not to change my mind. To begin with all the characters in the play are one-dimensional. It is hard to develop any empathy when all the characters are made out of cardboard. With a few exceptions they were all annoying.

Start with Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan. He spends most of his time doting over his very hot daughter Miranda, but only in a fatherly way of course. Played by Philip Goodwin he gets to be either doting, pretend to dislike Ferdinand (the son of Alonso, the King of Naples) or snivel at his ugly slave Caliban. Miranda (played by Samantha Soule) falls in love with Ferdinand (Duane Boutte) on first sight. This is not too surprising since she has never seen a man before other than her father and Caliban. But even so it would be hard to find a bigger airhead that Miranda. Samantha Soule though does a pretty convincing job of playing an airhead. Ferdinand may be the first guy her age she has ever seen but she is so in love with him you want to shake her by the shoulders and slap her across the face. It would be wholly sickening if she didn’t portray her love with such utterly sincerely.

The rest of the cast of characters were largely eminently forgettable. Of course all the people Prospero has issues with shipwrecked on his island by design. But don’t worry, nothing bad happens. Prospero has Ariel, a spirit, who causes his tempest but makes sure no one drowns, nothing actually is destroyed and everyone stays confused. In this staging Ariel (Daniel Breaker) gets to have the most fun, constantly suspended from piano wire and dancing over the stage, often hanging upside down. He also gets to sing a lot.

As usual you have to depend on comic relief to liven up the performance. Happily there was some excellent comic relief from Trinculo (Hugh Nees) and Stephano (Floyd King) as the bumbling, often inebriated sailors from the shipwreck. They give some modest life to what was otherwise a dreary performance.

Admittedly this particular play would be a challenge to even the most talented actors. It is hard to get people interested in cartoon characters. The staging was well done and dazzling at times. Yet it made little difference in a play where so many characters were miscast. Overall the play felt lifeless and uninspired. I was glad it turned out to be one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays so we could hustle on home when the curtain fell.