Shakespeare seems to be everywhere this Fall. Hartford Stage is mounting a production of "Macbeth" while New York is seeing three different productions of "Romeo and Juliet," one on Broadway, one off-Broadway and a third off-off-Broadway (but just blocks away from the Broadway version). PBS has been broadcasting the BBC's new version of four of Shakespeare's history plays under the title "The Hollow Crown," and a new film version of "Romeo and Juliet" will hit screens soon. Not to mention that there's a "Macbeth" at Lincoln Center and next spring Kenneth Branagh's take on the Scottish play will be seen at New York's Armory on Park. Joss Whedon's b&W film of "Much Ado About Nothing" is just out on DVD/Blu-Ray after garnering impressive reviews earlier this summer.
So it is not illogical for West Hartford's ambitious Playhouse on Park to mount its own Shakespeare, in this case "Othello," the tragedy of the much-decorated Venetian general of the title, a Moor, who is manipulated into his own downfall by his jealous ensign, Iago. The production has been directed by the Playhouse's Literary Director, Sasha Bratt, who has served as a director and assistant director at a number of venues in the greater Washington, D.C., area including Theatre J, the Wooly Mammoth and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre.
He has set this "Othello" in what he calls "an all too familiar world of constant war" and outfits the company in costume designer Erin Kacmarcik's modern dress designs, with dark suits and ties for the ruling class, fatigues and khakis for the military and summer weight dresses for the few women in the cast. Though ostensibly set in Venice and Cyprus, there also seems to be underlying middle eastern feel to the setting as well, helping to cement the connection to our modern times. Taking such a modern approach is quite trendy at the moment as the recent HD simulcast from Britain's National Theatre demonstrated with an "Othello" set in a claustrophobic military encampment on Cyprus but with a definite nod to the recent Iraqi war.
In trying to establish the contemporary relevance of his production, Bratt opens the play with a scene of a prisoner being graphically waterboarded. This turns out be a flash forward to Iago's eventual torture after he refuses to address his treachery regarding the events of the play. Bratt also inserts a wordless scene depicting the heated romance between Othello and Desdamona, which quickly dissolves into the opening scene from Shakespeare, in which the Venetian Rodrigo, in unrequited love with Desdamona, complains to Iago about the secret elopement of Othello and his bride. Iago in turn expresses his disappointment at Othello's selection of Michael Cassio to be his lieutenant, rather than himself. Iago then proceeds to undermine Othello and Cassio, involving Rodrigo and even his own wife, Emilia, in his chicanery.
Bratt keeps the play moving, especially after the action shifts to Cyprus, where Othello has been dispatched to fight the advancing Turks. While several minor characters have been eliminated and certain crowd scenes re-imagined, Bratt's version is a fairly comprehensive and straightforward presentation of the play. This is a good, sturdy production that proves easy to understand and follow and would serve as a particularly good introduction to Shakespeare, especially to students and others who have been turned off to Shakespeare by encounters with lackluster or unintelligible productions.
All of Bratt's cast are clearly comfortable with Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, with several demonstrating quite a good grasp of the language, particularly Aidan Eastwood-Paticchio's impressive Michael Cassio and Celine Held's lovely Desdamona. Both have a strong history of performing Shakespeare in their training and it shows in their performances.
R. J. Foster, who can also boast of a good deal of Shakespeare experience, offers a low-key Othello, who is cautious in speech and almost contemplative in action, particularly in the early stages of the play. While this is a legitimate interpretation of the character, the seeming lack of hubris and passion serves to reduce some of the irony and tragedy of Othello's eventual submission to "the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." Foster easily masters the linguistic demands of the role but he doesn't convey the authority and charisma one would expect from a victorious, highly-regarded general that more than compensates for his outsider status as a Moor.
Tom Coiner presents an Iago who conveys his character's maneuverings in a workman like manner that misses out on the more subtle nuances of duplicity and betrayal that could have added more edge to his portrayal. While he's no where near amiable, his demeanor fails to reveal the seething jealousies and eventual amorality that will enable him to easily dispatch those who stand in his way.
Held's Desdamona comes across as a modern woman interested in celebrating her relationship with Othello and hinting at her determination to be an equal partner. It is easy to see how her intelligence, grace and attractiveness captures the attention of her fellow Venetians and Othello's military colleagaues. Eastwood-Paticchio offers a feisty, determined Cassio whose downfall at times overshadows the main intrigue between Othello and Iago. Jennifer Polansky also serves up a noble figure at the wise, collected Emilia, who displays a wary distance from her husband almost from the start that is balanced by a genuine loyalty and friendship with the doomed Desdamona.
Austin Seay depicts Rodrigo as a bespectacled, love-struck nerd, filling his character with a social ineptness that belies his privileged belief that he is a worthy and deserving suitor to Desdamona. Emily Kron plays Cassio's courtesan Bianca with some heart and humor, yet her performance is just a little too reminiscent of her work as a Kit Kat Klub girl in the Playhouse's recent production of "Cabaret."
Christopher Hoyt's set opens with ripped mosquito net sheeting surrounding the stage, which quickly disappears to reveal white drapery lining the wall at the back of the stage. Most of the action takes place on a bare, open stage with few props and no furniture. The sheet-like draperies are later turned into Othello's and Desdamona's bed and chamber, where a great deal of the play's climactic action occurs. Aaron Hochheiser's lighting design is called upon to convey scene and location changes, as well as distinguish between times of day and night, which is deployed appropriately and helpfully.
The Playhouse on Park has previously presented Shakespeare, but in comic turns. In one of their initial seasons, they presented the Reduced Theater Company's version of "The Complete Works of William Shakespear" with great comedic success, as well as subsequently presenting a compact yet representative version of "The Comedy of Errors" that was equally entertaining. This venture into more serious Shakespeare has been quite a leap, but it reflects the relentless ambitions of this company that is willing to push it boundaries and test its mettle.
"Othello" plays through October 20. For information and tickets, call the box office at 860.523.5900, ext. 10, or visit the Playhouse's website at www.PlayhouseOnPark.org.
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