Faces of Infidelity: Othello and The Ladies Man at Shakespeare & Company

David Begelman

With a sidelong glance at the current political scene, 2008 must be the year of the farce. Is that the reason so many of them are being staged around the tri-state area? Westport Country Playhouse has mounted Scramble!, A Flea in Her Ear is being staged in Williamstown, and The Ladies Man has opened at the Founders Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts. One way or another, the influence of George Feydeau is discernable in all three productions.

Many among us love farce. You were more than likely as not to see this reviewer hitting the floor in paroxysms of laughter when watching Shakespeare & Company’s rendition of The Ladies Man, freely adapted from Feydeau’s Tailleur pour Dames. The fit drew little more than sneers from sourpusses on either side of him in the audience as though, like Pooh-Bah—the Lord High Everything Else in the Mikado— they were born that way.
As part of what Shakespeare & Company calls its first brunch matinee event of the 2008 season, the theater has dished up a hilarious version of the Feydeau farce. All of the eight performers in its cast have the timing and precision of just what it takes to roll with the necessary ingredients: in and out of slamming doors, ill-timed assignations, faux German or French accents (sounding in the case of Dave Demke as Etienne, house valet, like John Cleese’s fawning French waiter in The Meaning of Life), accomplished gyrations in compromised physical positions, and the complexities and confusions of sexual scenarios gone haywire. It is a madcap romp in La Belle Epoch France.

There is little in Feydeau’s confection that compares to Othello, Shakespeare’s majestic treatment of a military commander who becomes a tortured soul. Yet the French farce is, in a curious way, the flip side of the towering tragedy. Both plays deal with themes of imagined infidelity, albeit in ways that are worlds apart. The two are also double-billed on the same day at the Founders’ Theater in Lenox Massachusetts, as if one of them was intended to be relief from the other.

The two plays at Lenox also share several of the same performers, Shakespeare & Company’s ingenious way of underscoring the range of abilities in its seasoned actors. Jonathan Croy doubles as the beleaguered Dr. Hercule Molineaux in the Feydeau farce, and Lodovico in Othello; Walton Wilson enacts a stuffy, Bismarckean officer and husband in the farce, and an outraged Brabantio, father of Desdemona, in the tragedy; Michael F. Toomey plays the lisping and hounded Bassinet in the farce, and Montano in Shakespeare’s play, while the multi-tasker Elizabeth Aspenlieder (she’s the publicity director for the company), plays a wife who is determined to cuckhold her Prussian husband in an acrobatic play for Dr. Molineaux that is, choreographically speaking, a tour de force. She’s also Bianca, mistress of the traduced Michael Cassio in Othello.

The Shakespearean tragedy, one of the playwright’s finest, is a tightly constructed drama about a military commander in the Venetian army whose aide contrives to destroy him through innuendo about the infidelity of his adoring wife, Desdemona. The worm in the equation is Iago, arguably the most perfidious villain in all of dramatic literature. “Honest Iago” is the general’s spin on his treacherous aide, played by Michael Hammond as a silver-haired patrician type. The interpretation is an unusual, albeit plausible one, and a cut apart from the gruff, bawdy, NCO-type of villain portrayed by, for example, Frank Finley or Bob Hoskins.

Mr. Hammond’s interpretation of the role leans heavily on the humorous side of the villain, less on the terrifyingly dark side of his “malignity without motive” lurking under all other aspects of his persona. Although Mr. Hammond’s performance was distinctive, it never quite raised the hair on the back of one’s neck, as this villain was meant to do.
The character of Othello may be the most daunting challenge for an actor in all of dramatic literature. It certainly was for the likes of actors from Salvini to Olivier. Not all characterizations were successful because of the demanding nature of the role, and performers went down like bowling pins in the face of the challenge. David Garrick, the outstanding naturalistic actor of the eighteenth century bombed in the role. Othello invariably exacts a price from any lead not up to the subtle and not so subtle transitions of emotional intensity, rage, and contrition.

John Douglas Thompson has a head start on the portrayal of Shakespeare’s tragic hero. He is equipped physically for the role, and his presence on stage is always commanding. Director Tony Simotes’ approach to Act III, Scene III, in which Iago’s venomous insinuations start to unravel his general, was wisely moderated, and Othello’s fury was unleashed with intensity only subsequently in scenes with Desdemona. Mr. Thompson’s choice of an African dialect, while emphasizing a perception of Othello as “the other” in a Venetian state that must have represented its share of culture shock for a black foreigner, nonetheless became a clipped, somewhat awkward overlay atop the beauty of the verse. Nonetheless, Mr. Thompson had moments on stage that compared favorably to the best performances of the past. This is no mean accomplishment in a role the gods have deemed impossibly difficult.

Other performers acquitted their roles well, if not memorably. Yoshi Tanokura’s four-pillar set design was impressive, while Les Dickert’s amber lighting bathed performers in a perfect ambience for ongoing action.
Overall, a most enjoyable day in the theater—if you aim to laugh and cry within a short span of hours.

The Ladies Man opened at Shakespeare & Company at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA on May 23, 2008. Othello opened on July 18. Both shows continue to August 31, 2008. Evening performances are at 8:00 PM, matinees at 3:00 PM. Tickets range from $15 to $60, and may be purchased by calling (413)-637-3353 or online at www.shakespeare.org

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