"Othello" Grabs the Audience
By David A. Rosenberg
Whoever questions what all the hullabaloo is about Shakespeare should get to the outdoors “Othello” in Pinkney Park by this Saturday (or, later, to Baldwin Park in Greenwich). The tragedy about love, murder, deception and ambition is alive with intrigue and melodrama and director Joanna Settle’s straightforward take holds an audience rapt for two and a half hours.
Of course you know the story: The Moor Othello marries Desdemona, the white daughter of a Venetian senator, then is sent to Cyprus to become governor of that island. There the villainous Iago, angry because he’s been passed over for promotion, sows the seeds of jealousy, “the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Chaos is unleashed with dire consequences, ending with a lot of slain bodies strewing the stage.
Andrew Lieberman’s set reinforces the tragedy’s basic – or base – elements. A solid, unpainted wooden wall looms indifferently over the playing space, which is filled with what looks like soft black gravel (really ground-up tires), giving a properly unsteady foundation to a play about inexplicable motivations. To stage left is a two-tiered walkway on which external scenes occur. Settle uses the various locales to keep the action flowing nonstop.
Though the production takes flight in the second half, the first act is occasionally problematical. Jesse J. Perez’s Iago makes the character’s villainy so obvious that it’s a wonder no one has his number from the start. Such an approach makes Othello into a dunderhead.
This is further compounded by Victor Williams’ Othello who does not make at all clear why Desdemona would be fascinated with him. In his opening speech, Williams fails to weave the magical spell that makes the character so exotic and desirable. Yet he does rise to thunderous heights later.
Stephanie Fieger plays Desdemona not as a shrinking violet but a feisty woman who stands up to her husband. As Emilia, Iago’s wife, Stephanie DiMaggio, mannishly costumed, breaks the mold of dutiful wife. Although her “willow” scene with Desdemona, wherein they discuss the rascality of men and the rigor of women, is garbled, she comes into her own when facing up to Othello and Iago. Doubling as Brabantio and Lodovico, the excellent Triney Sandoval dominates his scenes.
Performed in modern dress, with alluring music and songs by the one-named Stew, along with Heidi Rodewald, this is a hot tempered, physical rendering, more a “barbarous brawl” than a poetic tale of hubris. But the essentials of Shakespeare as supreme dramatist come through and, under a balmy firmament punctured by a crescent moon and several stars, the evening catches power as the sky darkens.
Which is as it should be for one of Shakespeare’s greatest and, yes, most contemporary works. For here is a leader we can all recognize, someone done in by romance and gentility in an atmosphere where good and evil cancel each other out, leaving nothing behind. Under Settle’s astute direction, the decline from Othello’s swaggering first entrance to Iago’s challenging final stare is chilling.
This appeared in The Hour, June 20, 2010