Also see David's review of The 39 Steps
Jealousy, that ole green-eyed monster, can bring men low. Doubt can make men monsters. These are the major themes in Shakespeare's Othello, which is now being presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival in the Hanna Theatre of the Cleveland PlayhouseSquare.
Jealousy and doubt fuel the passions that turn Othello into a madman and which make Othello an interesting, thought-provoking drama.
Othello (David Alan Anderson) is a Moor, probably from Morocco. He is known for being an excellent military strategist and for telling fascinating stories. His ability to tell stories, and his military successes, first attract Desdemona (Sara M. Bruner) to Othello. They elope much to her father's unhappiness.
Iago (David Anthony Smith) is Othello's right-hand man. Iago suspects that his wife Emilia (Laura Perrotta) has been unfaithful to him with Othello. Iago plants the idea in Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio (Kevin Couch).
By the end of the play, the stage is littered with bodies. But, do deaths just before the curtain call make this (or any other play) a tragedy? Othello is usually listed as one of Shakespeare's tragedies, along with King Lear, Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. But Othello certainly has melodramatic elements.
Othello is rarely produced. This production offers audiences a wonderful opportunity to see an excellent production of this story of love gone wrong.
The production has two major problems. Risa Brainin (director) has set the production in modern-day Italy. Keep in mind that Shakespeare never left England and though he set the play in Italy, the audience should continue to think of England. This production has a military setting. Most of the men wear camouflage uniforms with the flag of Italy on the shoulder. The male characters who are not in the military wear contemporary suits, white shirts and ties. Emilia and Bianca wear clothes that remind me of Italian movies from the 1950s. Emilia wears a gray suit that comes down to the mid-calf. Bianca wears a red and white dress that is tight and revealing. Her dress is accented by bright red shoes with spike heels.
The setting is equally difficult to follow. The set is a wooden frame with a second-story level, which provides adequate space for the action. But the set should provide more than appropriate space. It should localize the action. This set does not do that.
From the costumes and set, it's difficult to identify the time period. However, it's about the middle of the last century. That setting battles with the Elizabethan English and the unrhymed iambic pentameter of the dialogue. Some people think that the setting and costuming don't have to harmonize with the dialoguebut I don't believe that's true.
Anderson, Bruner and Perrotta are superior in every scene. Bruner makes her Desdemona playful and flirtatious. This Desdemona seems to think she and her husband have hit a rough patch in their marriage, but she would never think he could kill her. Anderson never forgot Othello was a military leader, accustomed to demanding and getting his own way. But, he aches with passion for the lovely Desdemona. Perrotta makes Emilia an ever-present force in Desdemona's life. Yet, at the crucial moment, Shakespeare makes her absent from the scene.
Smith, as Iago, seems too young and to careless to create the jealousy necessary to cause his leader's downfall. I would prefer an older actor, with a few lines on his face, to show the life experiences necessary to wreak havoc in lives.
I remember Iago having a long soliloquy that seemed to justify his destruction of Othello. Is Iago really jealous because Othello may have had sex with Emilia? That part of the plot doesn't work well. Iago makes a passing reference to the possibility of Emilia being unfaithful with Othello and never comes back to that subject. In this production he shows little interest in Emilia, although the script makes possible touches, kisses and caresses.
Shakespeare provided interesting hints about this script. Iago has more lines than Othello, yet the play is named for Othello. Is Shakespeare indicating where our sympathy should lie? Of course, not many plays are named for the villain of the piece.
In the opera Otello, Boito (librettist) and Verdi (music) answer the question "Why is Iago such a villain?." Shakespeare doesn't explain Iago's villainy. In Otello, Iago sings a Credo that gives him a direction. He sings, "I believe in a cruel God who has created me in his image ... I am evil because I am human ... And after death? Death is nothingness. Heaven is an old wives' tale." With those words as a statement of faith, Iago is capable of any crime. Although Shakespeare didn't write these words, a reading makes Iago's actions more believable.
At the end of the play, Iago says that he will no longer speak on the deaths and what motivated his deeds. Thus, Shakespeare never explains why Iago is such a villain.
In this production the director and cast recognize the thinness of the handkerchief part of the plot and seem to rush over that section. Yet it the handkerchief that undoes them all.
No one wrote a final scene better than Shakespeare. Fortunately, this production has a team of actors who can play Shakespeare's final scene with tension that is palpable throughout the theater.
The Great Lakes Theater Festival will continue to offer Othello in the fall repertory with Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband through October 31. For ticket information telephone 216-241-6000 or visit www.greatlakestheater.org. Note the evening performances start at 7:30pm.
The Hanna Theatre
- David Ritchey