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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Othello opens at Guthrie
and Cats at Chanhassen


Guthrie launches an intensely felt Othello to go on tour

Thank God! An Othello with a black actor in the title role. I've seen a white Othello, which crippled the production, since the play's structure depends upon the title character being a consummate outsider. Worse yet, I've seen an Othello in black-face. But here is handsome Lester Purry, who plays Shakespeare's "noble Moor" with dignity and power under Joe Dowling's direction, but with an initial restraint that belies the command he achieves later on.

(Purry was a scorching King Hedley II, in August Wilson's play of the same name at Penumbra last season.)

Dowling emphasizes Othello the domestic man, rather than Othello the military general, and in the intimacy of the Guthrie Lab this close-in reading works to intensify the emotions of the tragedy. But early in the play, Dowling has Purry play the Moor with a reserve that sails close to understatement, as Othello justifies his marriage to Desdemona in the face of overt racism. Once Iago's fateful seeds of doubt root in Othello, Purry's hold on his character swells in a vice of jealousy so intense that I found it almost unbearable to watch a noble man destroy himself, his love and his innocent wife, Desdemona.

Cheyenne Casebier plays a delightfully flirtatious Desdemona, an Eve, fair, amorous and very much in love. Dowling sees Desdemona as more than a sacrificial lamb. Casebier's spunky young Desdemona is a girl who might well steal out of her father's house to make a risky marriage. The first time they are together on stage, Desdemona runs to Othello and flings herself into his arms, as spontaneous as a child, and he responds to her with an intimacy that longs for the bedroom.

In interesting casting against type, Dowling has attractive, blond Bill McCallum play Iago, the Satan in Othello's brief Eden. It's a canny choice. In a play laced with irony, other characters speak of Iago's honesty and trustworthiness and, even in the face of Iago's heinous machinations, McCallum's pleasing facade helps to lend credibility to these characterizations and to Othello's falling ready victim to his knavery.

Among the supporting cast, Virginia S. Burke excels as Iago's wife, Emilia, Desdemona's woman-in-waiting; she finds Emilia's complexity, a woman both fallible and rock strong. Robert O. Berdhal is a nicely honorable Cassio, Kris L. Nelson pleases as the foolish gull, Roderigo, and Ann Kim plays Cassio's indignant courtesan with heat.

Two scenes at play's end stand out for me. I was enchanted by the playfully intimate exchange between Desdemona and Emilia, as Desdemona prepares for her fateful bed. And I could barely force myself to watch Desdemona's struggle as Othello smothers her.

Dowling sets Othello in an undefined but recent historical past that had me wondering what period I was in, but it serves the play well enough. Patrick Clark's costumes for the three women and Roderigo suggest Victorian times, but the Italian-styled military uniforms reference an earlier period. Clark's versatile and slightly shabby classical set of a military outpost in Cypress is timeless, and Mathew Reinert's ingenious lighting effectively transforms the simple scene changes.

Othello will tour nationally as part of the National Endowment for the Arts' Shakespeare in American Communities initiative. Once the wind fills Purry's sail, this Othello will be an emotionally gripping flagship to send out into the world.

Othello November 5 - December 21. Tuesdays - Sundays. Times vary. $22 - $30. Guthrie Lab, 700 North First Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224, or online at www.guthrietheater.org.


Chanhassen skimbles through a refreshed and family-friendly Cats

CatsChanhassen Dinner Theaters has joyously reinvigorated Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, a musical that had grown weary from too much prowling around in touring productions since its raved-about 1981 opening in London.

Cats is a whisker-thin tale, drawn from T.S. Eliot's poems for children, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." In song and athletic dance, it tells of some 30 alley cats' annual Jellicle Ball, at which one lucky feline is chosen and given a 10th life.

Artistic director Michael Brindisi lifts Cats from its traditional trash-can setting and, on Nayna Ramey's set that provides plenty of climbing and lounging opportunities, he places it in the back alley of a boarded-up theater. He takes his cue from the setting to have the cats audition for a chance to earn an extra life beyond the traditional nine. In a leaping tumult of adroitly choreographed song and dance, cats define their personalities.

Cats is as much about dance as it is about song, and choreographer Michael Mathew Ferrell and Chanhassen's magnificent ensemble of dancers do not disappoint. Ferrell has designed dances in which cats leap and twine, pounce and slink, claw and snooze in some of the finest and certainly the most vigorous dancing I have seen at Chanhassen.

Voices are all miked to project over Thomas Mustachio's hidden orchestra as they sing Webber's gorgeous tunes.

It's a playful production. Keith Rice as Munkustrap petitions the audience with a sign that says "paws." It took me a while to understand that this was an invitation to applaud. Particularly appealing for youngsters is the prowling in the aisles by furry felines during the show and at intermission.

To highlight a few outstanding performances, Tony Vierling's magical cat, Mistoffelees, is so light on his paws that he hardly seems to touch the stage. Teenage Rum Tum Tugger (Danny McHugh) dances and flicks his hips like Elvis, and the lithe pair of pick-pockets, Rumpleteazer (Ali Littrell) and Mungojerrie (Joey Babay) dance with speed and athleticism. Among the voices, Keith Rice sings a strong Munkustrap, E. Mani Cadet brings richness to Old Deuteronomy and Michelle Barber, in tattered fur and bandaged leg, as Grizabella, the worn out Glamour Cat, sings Webber's haunting song "Memory" with feeling.

Sandra Nei Schulte kits out each cat in distinctive, head-to-toe form-fitting costumes and dangly tails, and Susan Magnuson's wigs divide to give an impression of ears. She also designs the facial make-up, a small art in its own right on these cat faces.

If this Cats has a fault, it's a fault of surfeit. Some of the numbers could be shortened, but it's a joyful, high energy night out that will entertain both parents and children.

Cats, November 7 - Continuing. Tuesdays - Saturdays 6:00 p.m. for dinner and show. Sundays 4:30 p.m. Matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays 11:00 a.m. $31 - $65. Chanhassen Dinner Theaters, 501, West 78th Street, Chanhassen. Call: 952-934-1525, or www.chanhassentheaters.com.


Photo: Act One, Too



Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area


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Elizabeth Weir



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