22 April 2005: Shakespeare, Othello, The Moor of Venice

Hartford Stage. Directed by Karin Coonrod

Over the last couple of decades I have been forced to come to terms with the postmodern theatre, while never really liking it. All my suppressed animos­ities have surfaced again as a result of seeing the first half of this dreadful prod­uc­tion. It fairly screams ”diversity” at its audience (a house only two-thirds full; the news must have gotten around since it opened, on April 7). In theory it is a fine idea to cast someone named Firdous Bamji as Othello; but before you do, you need to make sure he is up to the role. Bamji is not; he is too young, to begin with, and vocally he is not up to the requirements of the part. He is a good-looking, well coordinated man who speaks English with a slight near-Eastern accent (appropriate, to be sure), but he lacks substance, lacks pith; he is a light­weight, and he cannot handle the verse. That became evident in his “Like to the Pontic sea” speech, a formal piece of power and verve, the product of a mind that brooks no departure from the heroic absolute. Bamji was far too low key, almost conversational. The Iago, David Patrick Kelly, a man of remarkable energies and aesthetic and histrionic gifts, played the role in a kind of rude, Midwestern, rural idiom, with a pronounced angularity that had, finally, little to do with the char­acter; and besides Kelly is far too old for the part of Othello’s twenty-eight-year-old “ancient.” He is sixty-five if he is a day. So both Othello and Iago are cast against age type. Cassio, cast as a departure from the usual aristocratic Italian, is Christopher Michael Rivera, a handsome bearded man with olive skin and thick, black, glossy hair; if he could act he would be worth watching, but he has no clear line on the character and doesn’t project enough. In fact, he makes a poor target for Iago’s envy and retributive instincts. The Duke of Venice was played by a black actor, Michael Rogers; this was intended to be color-blind casting, but it came a cropper when he said to Brabantio, near the end of the scene, to judge Othello fairly, he seemed “far more fair than black” (Bamji seems as Caucasian as the next person).

Costumes: perhaps it took a lot of money to achieve such consistent, con­cen­trated shabbiness, but anyhow they managed to pull it off: old US Army uniforms on the soldiers; Othello likewise in an army uniform, in one scene with vibrant red epaulets; but Iago, despite his soldierly status, wears no uniform at all, unaccountably, but an ill-fitting blue suit and a red silk shirt open at the collar (what was that all about?). In the first act the Venetian dignitaries, except for the Doge, wore tall caps like dunces; Desdemona’s hair was done in modified corn-rows. In other words, trendy political statements galore all over the stage, except where they just exemplified resolute shabbiness. The scenery, likewise. The stage a steeply raked platform that pointed toward the audience in a kind of V-shape; it reminded me of old newsreels where the thrust of an army moving across Europe was represented as a moving, thick arrow, a wedge. Light battens were lowered at the front of the stage, right to the stage floor, from which the instru­ments acted as if they were footlights; later, five long battens the width of the stage were lowered into plain sight, and from them a long series of instruments without gels shone their light remorselessly down on the stage at such an angle that the brightness of the stage floor itself reflected the light out at the audience, creating noticeable glare. Could someone please tell me what the point of all this was? No “concept” apart from sheer perversity, coupled with an instinct for novelty at any cost, seems to be driving this production.

Act III scene iii, in which Iago so moves Othello that he appoints him his lieutenant in place of the cashiered Cassio, was cut to ribbons and poorly played. At that point, the instinct to flee that had worked at the back of my mind since the opening scene became so peremptory that I obeyed it and, as the lights came up for intermission — one hour and forty minutes into the production — I fled.

Karin Coonrod, the program tells us, is a lecturer in directing at the Yale School of Drama. Her experience in off-Broadway theaters and in regional theaters elsewhere would seem to be belied by what I heard and saw tonight. What director of skill and insight could possibly let her Othello say “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore”? But then, there is a noticeable shift in pro­nun­ciation going on in every medium (especially broadcasting, including NPR), away from nouns and towards the adjectives that modify the nouns and even towards the verbs that energize them, as in this example). It is a trend that seems to be irreversible. What is the cause of it? A national anxiety of some kind? I am at a loss to account for it, but it is immensely irritating and very unsettling.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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