American Shakespeare Centre - 2006

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Othello at the American Shakespeare Center: A Round, Unvarnished Tale


I come not to bury the American Shakespeare Center, but to praise it -- and I mean to praise it to its gorgeous oaken rafters if I can. With the opening of Othello, the most domestic and provocative of Shakespeare's major tragedies, the four-play lineup for the center's "Summer/Fall Season" is finally complete. Although I have yet to see the ASC's productions of As You Like It, The Tempest, and MacBeth -- all in heavy rotation from now through November -- I'm happy to report that the final show in the series, Othello, is a delight from start to finish.

First, a few words on the center itself: For Virginians who consider ourselves as poor as church mice when it comes to high culture, the ASC complex in Staunton, Virginia, offers riches indeed. In any given year one can count on Shenandoah Shakespeare, the repertory company behind the Center, to stage no fewer than thirteen separate shows, including works from the Bard, plays by his contemporaries, and even a more recent offering or two like Greater Tuna or The Santaland Diaries. The center is best known for its traditional fare (the more traditional the better), and slowly but surely it has made the unlikely hamlet of Staunton a world-class destination for Shakespeare lovers who want to see a "round, unvarnished tale."

Five years ago, the company unveiled its piece de resistance -- a mind-blowing, one-of-a-kind reconstruction of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Shakespeare's indoor theater, the lesser-known companion to his outdoor Globe, has been reproduced in meticulous and loving detail, with intricate woodwork, beautiful chandeliers and a well-trod thrust stage. Some concessions have been made to modernity, mostly in the lobby area: Electricity, of course, and indoor plumbing, but also a modern elevator, ramps for limited handicapped accessibility, a tiny bar serving local wines, a computerized ticket system and a spacious, well-appointed backstage area. But the theater proper seems to belong to an entirely different universe, one in which seventeenth-century theater has been recreated and reinvented for the twenty-first century.

As the actors inform the audience prior to each show, Shenandoah Shakespeare employs "Universal Staging Practices." There is no lighting designer because there is no lighting: House lights remain on throughout every performance, allowing the actors to see and interact with the audience. There is no set designer, because there are no sets -- or rather, the Blackfriars is the set. Props are minimal; costuming may or may not be period, but is never elaborate. Staging tends to occur throughout the theater: For crowd scenes, actors may even lead the audience in chanting and clapping. And because the cast works with a different audience at each performance, no two shows are ever exactly alike. The idea here is to present Shakespeare's plays more or less as a seventeenth-century audience would have experienced them.

As a side benefit, Shenandoah Shakespeare explores the Bard's relationship to the theater of his day, and reveals his keen awareness of both environment and audience. The dialogue of Shakespearean drama is often tinged with actors' jargon (for instance, Othello's line "Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter"), and although a reader may easily overlook or slight them, these reflexive moments gain renewed force in an explicitly theatrical setting like the Blackfriars. Of course, Shakespeare was no Bertholdt Brecht. Brecht's "epic theater" is designed to direct audiences' attention away from the stage, while Shakespeare's self-consciousness brings us ever closer to the action. Few contemporary Shakespearean productions manage to capture the joyfully reflexive, even metatheatrical qualities of his writing, but the American Shakespeare Center manages to do so at nearly every performance.

The only downside to ASC's approach is that it makes Othello impossible to review in any normal sense. I could say, for instance, that the actor playing Iago (James Keegan) looks too old for the part, and that the actor playing Othello (Rene Thornton Jr.) is much too young, but none of these naturalistic criteria matter much. The important thing is that James Keegan has created the best Iago I've ever seen, a man's man who exudes friendly, frat-boy charm among his fellow soldiers, yet confides his deep-seated malice to the audience. Keegan uses the Blackfriars' impeccable acoustics to great effect, delivering low stage asides and angry tirades with equal elan. Most importantly, he makes clear that Iago is no less deluded or weak than the man he would destroy, which doubles the tragic impact of the final scene. Far from the "motiveless malignity" that Samuel Coleridge famously described, this Iago is a tragic figure in his own right.

Rene Thornton's Othello is more problematic: He does not convey the gravitas of a military leader, and consequently his downfall never fully registers. Nonetheless, Thornton is immensely likable, and plays off Keegan's Iago well. More successful, I think, is Sarah Fallon as Desdemona: Shakespeare's women are generally well-played at the Blackfriars (even when, as here, they happen to be ill-used), and this Desdemona exhibits none of the simpering tendencies often associated with the character. Fallon plays Othello's ill-starred wife as a virtuous, strong-willed woman, who loves her husband yet is bewildered at his sudden, inexplicable change of heart. Celia Madeoy excels as Emilia, a sensible woman torn between sexual attraction to husband Iago and her growing suspicion that he might be up to no good.

In keeping with the ASC's general approach, director Jim Warren does not impose an interpretive agenda on Othello. The approach pays handsome dividends, by showing the play to be far richer and more complex than most of us have thought. Most audiences and directors -- American ones, anyway -- see Othello as Shakespeare's definitive statement against racial prejudice, and race is a prominent issue here. But it is far from the only issue: The play may also be considered a pre-feminist expose of domestic violence, or a scathing condemnation of the practice of "honor killing" (which sadly survives even in the enlightened West). It might serve as a warning on the dangers of military idleness (when Othello's soldiers arrive at Crete and discover they have no battles to fight, they promptly turn their swords on each other), or it could give a timely reminder that even a brave soldier can lose his bearings when he's kept too long away from home. Warren allows Othello to signify all these things and more. Yet he never presses too heavily on a single issue, and he never allows the play's various thematic concerns to overshadow its entertainment value.

And make no mistake, ASC's Othello is rousing entertainment, the kind that reminds us what is sadly missing from too many Shakespeare productions. Most actors and directors, at least from Orson Welles onward, have struggled with the problem of making the Bard of Avon accessible to modern audiences, and to this end they often employ elaborate staging, obvious political agendas, and other devices to distract the audience from the form and the language of Elizabethan drama. But the American Shakespeare Center suggests, quite subversively, that Shakespeare might have had the answer all along: The play's the thing.

***

A word to parents: ASC productions are family-friendly, and may be considered generally suitable for ages ten and up with supervision. The usual caveats as to sexual content and dirty jokes apply, of course. Othello, perhaps the most thematically mature Shakespeare work, is something of an exception, but even so this ASC production should be appropriate for younger teens with parental supervision. Parents who want to introduce their children to the Bard will find no better opportunity, and prices at the Blackfriars (especially for upper balcony stalls) are unbeatable.

Sarah Fallon: Hot Like Salsa, smooth Like Chocolate.. Come Taste Me ...