In Othello, playing at Boston Court, Wolpe takes a turn as Iago. It's difficult to pay attention to Iago's initial dialogue, as your brain is taking a moment to process how perfectly Wolpe creates a male character. It's the same feeling you get when you first hear a British performer flawlessly pull off an American accent - you just marvel at the fact they're actually doing it, before you can take it for granted and watch the story. Linda Bisesti is posturing as a man in the role of Roderigo, but Wolpe's Iago actually is male. It isn't about a swagger or a lowering of voice. Just watching the way Iago sits and holds his cigarette tells you not only that he's a man, but a man of a certain class (not that high), a man of a certain attitude (that the world should give him what he believes is his due), and a man of thoughtfulness. Wolpe approaches Iago with a level of understanding - if not actual sympathy - for the villain, creating a character who is conniving, but also delightfully human. Her Iago knows he's never going to be a dominating physical presence, so he smoothly talks other people into thinking that what he wants is in their best interest. And when Othello promotes Cassio over Iago, Iago feels unjustly betrayed, and thinks that revenge is his right.
Wolpe's Iago is complex, but her interpretation is never confused. It's a splendid performance, well-served by Wolpe's own direction. (Watch Iago's wife, Emilia, while Iago watches a seductive dancer. There is no dialogue spoken, but their wordless interaction tells you everything you need to know about their marriage.) The problem - and it is a problem that frequently plagues LA Women's Shakespeare - is that Wolpe is not backed up by a company that matches her talents.
Fran Bennett starts off solidly enough as Othello - a confident military man with no artifice about him. His words are blunt, and Bennett matches them with a blunt delivery. It's easy to see how Bennett's Othello will fall prey to someone as scheming as Iago - he's a man of simple goodness who assumes everyone around him is of a similar mindset. But as the play progresses, more is required of Othello, and Bennett's portrayal can't keep up. A scene in which Othello has a seizure is particularly unconvincing. (Kimberleigh Aarn plays Cassio with the same sort of decent goodness that can't even conceive of deception - and it works better for Cassio because Cassio doesn't face the same emotional challenges Othello does.) While Bennett's Othello is weaker in the second act, Nell Geisslinger's Desdemona gets stronger. She opens the show in a dance with Othello (which nicely establishes her handkerchief as a key prop), but her movements aren't committed enough to express how truly swept away Desdemona is. But in her climactic second act scene with Othello, it is Geisslinger's Desdemona who truly dominates. Cognizant of her fate on one level, trying to change it on another, Geisslinger brings a tension and urgency to a scene to which, let's face it, everybody already knows the conclusion. Also notable is Katrinka Wolfson, who brings quite a bit to her portrayal of Emilia - focussing not only on the "concerned maid" element of her role, but also delivering an Emilia who is smart enough to be a match for Iago.
Wolpe has set the play in the 1930s, and some fascist images and uniforms add an extra dimension to this particular exploration of evil. There is a lot to recommend this production, but a few uneven performances keep it from being as powerful as it could have been.
Othello runs at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena through March 23, 2008. For information and tickets, see www.bostoncourt.com.
The Theatre @ Boston Court -- Jessica Kubzansky & Michael Michetti, Artistic Directors; Michael Seel, Executive Director -- in association with Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company -- Lisa Wolpe, Artistic Director -- presents Othello by william Shakespeare. Directed by Lisa Wolpe. Scenic Design Susan Gratch; Costume Design Soojin Lee; Lighting Design Jaymi Lee Smith; Sound Design Kari Rae Seekins; Props Robyn Taylor; Fight Choreography Edgar Landa; Choreography Cynthia Beckert; Hair & Make-up Design Mary Trahey; Assistant Directors Edgar Landa & Natsuko Ohama; Casting Raul Clayton Staggs; Key Art Christopher Komuro; Production Stage Manager Rachel myles; Publicist Aldrich & Associates