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SAN DIEGO
Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Othello
The Old Globe


Blair Underwood and Richard Thomas
Prior to being named as the Old Globe's Artistic Director, Barry Edelstein led The Public Theatre's Shakespeare Initiative in New York. In that capacity, he oversaw the Public's Free Shakespeare in the Park performances at Central Park's Delacorte Theater. He's brought key elements of the New York model to the Old Globe's long-running Summer Shakespeare Festival, and if his production of Othello is any indication, that model should provide a recipe for success.

The Delacorte model is fairly simple: hire a strong cast and director with at least a couple of well-known performers, stage the performances taking advantage of the leafy outdoor setting, and give the majority of tickets away to audiences who will, usually, line up for hours to get in. And it works quite well: for example, Old Globe artistic director emeritus Jack O'Brien's production of Much Ado about Nothing, starring Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe, is just wrapping up a month's run.

For the Globe's Othello, Mr. Edelstein is directing Blair Underwood as Othello, Kristen Connolly as Desdemona, and Richard Thomas as Iago. The Lowell Thomas Festival Theatre adjoins a canyon that houses the San Diego Zoo and provides a deep and dark background for Wilson Chen's sliding chain-link and silver-walled set. The Globe doesn't give away the tickets, but San Diegans probably wouldn't spend the day lined up for them in any case.

Trimmed to a crisp and fast-paced two-and-a-half hours, this Othello knows its characters' motivations and lays them out clearly and systematically. Othello, a Moor who has risen to a man of stature through valor on the battlefield, is keenly aware of his outsider status, is insecure about his marriage to Desdemona, a union kept secret from her father for a time, and yet he's overly trusting of Iago, his ensign. Iago, on the other hand, is a complex man: he's certainly motivated by the kind of casual racism that Shakespeare ascribed to Venetians, but he also hates that Othello has passed him over to reward Michael Cassio (Noah Bean) with the lieutenant position he coveted. He is furious to find that Othello has married Desdemona, not just because the marriage is an interracial one but because Iago is sexually attracted to Desdemona even while he makes sure that his wife Emilia (Angela Reed) remains under his thumb.

But, because Iago has cultivated a reputation for being honest, trustworthy and forthright, he finds it easy to manipulate those around him. And so, he makes Cassio his pawn in a complicated game of "who loves whom" that involves Desdemona's unsuccessful suitor Roderigo (Jonny Orsino) and Bianca (Erin Elizabeth Adams), a local woman who has fallen for Cassio.

This version's emphasis on Iago's psychological complexity, as compared to the other major characters, does tend to leave Othello on the sidelines until the final scenes. But Mr. Thomas is very much up to the task of carrying the play. While it might be a bit disconcerting to see "John-Boy Walton" playing a character who delights in his own villainy, Mr. Thomas' accomplishment and experience as a stage actor allows audiences to be both drawn to and repelled by his portrayal.

The rest of the cast is solid, both in characterization and ability to make both word and meaning of Shakespeare's text clear. Mr. Underwood's performance reflects Othello's tragic flaw of selling himself short, even in victory. Mr. Bean's Cassio carefully trods the bog of political intrigue, while Ms. Connolly's Desdemona and Mr. Orsini's Roderigo are all hormones and emotions. Desdemona eventually gets the better of hers, but Roderigo lets his drive him to folly. Ms. Reed's Emilia does not have much to do until the last scenes, but when her Emilia takes over, she really takes over. Ms. Adams gives Bianca a dignity that belies Iago's dismissive comments about her moral character. San Diego favorites Mark Pinter and Mike Sears, along with Patrick Zeller, supply distinctive characterizations in smaller roles.

Curtis Moore's exciting original music, scored for two percussionists perched above the playing area, proves integral to the enjoyment of the evening. Those who recall with pleasure the incidental music of Globe's long-time composer Conrad Susa should find Mr. Moore's score (and its performance) to their liking.

Globe audiences had a good run, under both Darko Tresnjak and Adrian Noble, with a repertory model that committed a large acting company to more than four months of rehearsals and performances. Mr. Edelstein's model requires a much shorter commitment, as each production is cast, rehearsed and performed separately. At least from the evidence we can gather based on this production of Othello, the new model has a good chance of producing results that are at least as enjoyable and insightful as the one it replaced.

Through July 27, 2014, nightly except Mondays, at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre on the Old Globe campus in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets start at $29 and may be obtained at the box office, by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623], or by visiting www.oldglobe.org.

The Old Globe presents Othello, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Barry Edelstein with Wilson Chin (Scenic Design), Katherine Roth (Costume Design), Stephen Strawbridge (Lighting Design), Acme Sound Partners with Jason Crystal (Sound Design), Curtis Moore (Original Music), Ryan Nestor (Music Director), Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum (Fight Director), Ursula Meyer (Voice and Text Coach), Tara Rubin Casting (Casting), and Leila Knox (Stage Manager).

The cast includes Erin Elizabeth Adams (Bianca), Noah Bean (Michael Cassio), Meaghan Boeing (Ensemble), Lindsay Brill (Ensemble), Charlotte Bydwell (Ensemble), Lowell Byers (Ensemble), Kristen Connolly (Desdemona), Jamal Douglas (Othello's Aide-de-Camp), Adam Gerber (Ensemble), Kushtrim Hoxha (Montano), Stephen Hu (Ensemble), Tyler Kent (Ensemble), Jonny Orsini (Roderigo), Mark Pinter (The Duke of Venice), Angela Reed (Emilia), Mike Sears (Brabantio, Gratiano), Robbie Simpson (Ensemble), Megan M. Storti (Ensemble), Richard Thomas (Iago), Blair Underwood (Othello), and Patrick Zeller (Lodovico).


Photo: Jim Cox

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie



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