3 April 2004: Shakespeare, Othello

Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, on tour, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts “Shakespeare in American Communities” program. Directed by Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of the Guthrie.

The FAC auditorium is a cavernous space holding some 1,900 persons, and in a sense it proved to be the villain, or meta-villain, of the Guthrie’s colorful and strong but somewhat flawed production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Shakespeare could have packed another thousand or so persons into the Globe, but the length of the average sight line would have been much shorter. The Guthrie actors were clearly having to project their voices more than they are used to doing at home, and this had an unfortunate effect on the believability of their acting; it was too declamatory and insufficiently centered in characterization, almost as if a group of talented actors had been handed a new script and told to read it at full voice and find what characterizations they could along the way. That comparison is unfair, of course, to actors who have rehearsed long and hard and are performing this production in all sorts of venues large and otherwise, including this one, notorious for its ability to eat consonants alive. To their credit, the words were for the most part clear and well articulated. And Dowling had anticipated the need to make this play accessible to a great range of general audiences. I mean nothing derogatory in saying that it was pitched perfectly at the average intelligent senior high school student. The actors had been told to slow down the rate of delivery in large auditoriums, presumably; or else, like seasoned actors, in the first minute of performance they could gauge what was happening to their voices in this big monster of a hall and give their lines time to resonate back and up to the far reaches of rear orchestra and multiple shallow mezzanine seats.

The problem with such slow delivery, despite the benefits that confers on understanding, is that the pace of the action sometimes suffers noticeably. In the case of Othello, from the point when Iago launches his final strategy, intending that Cassio kill Roderigo or Roderigo, Cassio, or each the other — and neither is killed (Iago has to finish off Roderigo himself) — the action has to go like a pistol shot all the way through to Othello’s suicide. We have to be shown the cata­stroph­ic consequences of both the misfiring of Iago’s plan (so that he ends up being exposed as the perpetrator of the scheme) and Othello’s sadly misguided attempt to restore honor to his life by killing Desdemona. There can be no room in the dramaturgical scheme of things for there to be any pause or slowing down in the action. The tension must be absolutely terrific, taut as a steel band stretched to the breaking point, because any lessening of the tension opens the possibility that discovery of Othello and Iago’s nefarious pact will abort the scheme and save Desdemona’s life.
But the exigencies of careful articulation and the determined projection imposed conditions of ex post facto leisureliness that militated against this tension. I don’t mean to say that the action became flaccid here; only that it lacked the necessary momentum. Entrance cues were not picked up as quickly as they needed to be. We had time, during scene transitions, to reflect on what was happening or going to happen. And so the sense of tragic inevitability was not as compelling as we had a right, and a need, for it to be.

This was a pity, because there were many aspects of the production that made it worthwhile to see. The setting was a prominent open-columned affair upstage to which various set pieces could be added or taken away from. In Act I, Brabantio’s house in Venice is represented by heavy wrought iron railings perhaps eight or ten feet tall ranged along the axis of the columns. Portals downstage, left and right, vaguely reminiscent of proscenium doors, doing duty for entrances and exits throughout the performance. The stage floor is slightly raked, but on this floor is superimposed a level platform that covers most of the middle-and downstage area, creating a step at the downstage edge. Stage properties — tables, chairs, a folding screen and night table for Desdemona’s disrobing scene, are carried on and off by stagehands. For Acts II-V, the upstage area is delineated by a low balcony railing parallel to the columns, and beyond that a sky cloth, bestowing a sense of space but also retaining a menacing pres­ence in the heavy, round, immobile pillars. I have a vague recollection of the setting for Olivier’s Othello, both stage version and film, as having this same ironic quality of openness and menacing threat. That recollection is bolstered by the frank borrowing of the hidden bracelet blade used by Olivier’s Othello to kill himself at the end. Dowling’s use of this device is so obvious as to be a kind of quotation from the film, which many have seen and will remember. I found this at once dramatically effective and jarring.

A black actor, Lester Purry, handsome and muscular, with first rate “abs,” was cast as Othello; he did quite well, but, like so many American actors, he tended to shout at the top of his emotional range. And I found him tending to declaim, in stentorian tones, instead of finding an emotionally convincing center for his speeches. The Iago, Bill McCallum, used a noticeable midwestern accent as a way of grounding his character socially, but there were midwestern accents sprinkled throughout the cast. MacCallum was very energetic and looked the part of a non-commissioned officer who would never rise to the rank of lieutenant; his brush cut was right in character. He was brash and unsubtle, but I found little complexity of character in him. One way of playing Iago is to be emotionally opaque, to play the “I am not what I am” line; but it takes skill to do that and keep the character interesting and even fascinating in a repellent sort of way. The result in this case was that MacCallum’s character was just not quite believable, not quite really interesting. The Desdemona, a very tall (taller than Othello) and very pretty woman named Cheyenne Casebier (only in America would you find such a concatenation of verbal origins), a forthright yet demon­strably loving woman completely mystified by her husband’s inconceivable treatment of her. Her speech was closer to standard American stage speech, but her projection was less effective. She could not be understood in Row P, where I was sitting, during the disrobing scene — though her singing was nice, and largely escaped the current style of ad lib embellishment universal in popular song these days. The murder scene was similarly not clear.

Costumes: an odd and finally ineffective choice of 1880’s Victorian. Act I gave us London morning suits (albeit in the small hours of the morning) and dark blue soldier and officer costumes. Desdemona took along an impressive wardrobe of her best day and dinner dresses to Cyprus (we see the trunk of them carried in as Act II begins), and they look quite lovely on her, whereas the khaki soldier uniforms said something more like Boer War Africa. 1880s doesn’t make much sense as a metaphorical locus for this play; it seemed like something brought arbitrarily out of the hat by the costume designer Patrick Clark, who also designed the very effective set and must have thought dresses and set went to­gether, but the conjunction — its rationale, that is — escapes me. You could see the weakness in the conception most openly in the case of Roderigo, dressed for the first scene in evening clothes and a sumptuous silk top hat — and speaking with a faux Oxbridge accent! — and then, in the later acts, having surreptitiously acquired soldierly khaki, he abandons that for more casual civvies. What were they thinking of?

Some very good acting, nonetheless, bolstered the production, especially in the case of the Brabantio, Nathaniel Fuller, full white beard, angular, a very un­happy old man deeply sad and angry all at once to lose a much loved daughter to such a man in such a way; an extremely articulate actor who had no trouble negotiating the furthest reaches of the Fine Arts Center. And the Emilia, Virginia S. Burke, played a character still trying to be affectionate to Iago despite his con­stant rebuffs and put-downs, and unable to see the horror her almost innocent stealing of the handkerchief lets loose until it is too late.

And so: a very good, well acted, accessible production that fell afoul, in some important ways, of the large and significant task that had been set for the Guthrie of taking four perennial Shakespeare favorites to the American hinter­land (Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Third, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream being the other three). An undergraduate student sitting next to me, and dressed seem­ing­ly more for a sparkling day in May on the greensward than for a damp, chilly April evening, said her instructor in a course called “The Lively Art” had sent the class to see the play for their “unit” on Shakespeare. “I’m not much on Shake­speare,” she confessed, adding that she found Othello not very under­standable. But she took copious notes all the same. This is the audience, and not primarily the profs and professionals, that the Guthrie production is aimed at. Their target the day before was an audience of 1,000 high school students who purportedly loved it. And to be sure, there was much to love there and little to complain of except by old curmudgeons like me.


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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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