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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Marin Shakespeare Company Presents
a Brisk, Functional Staging of
Shakespeare's Othello

Also see Richard's reviews of Ragtime and Julie Budd at the Empire Plush Room

Othello
Paul Sulzman as Iago and
Aldo Billingslea as Othello

The Marin Shakespeare Company has continually improved their summer festival series, and this year is no exception. They are currently presenting, in repertory, Shakespeare's Othello and Oliver Goldsmith's classic comedy She Stoops to Conquer on the outside stage at Dominican University in San Rafael.

Othello is one of the four great Shakespeare tragedies, and many critics believe that this is the apex of the Bard's dramatic art. There are many villains in his other tragedies, such as the usurper King Claudius in Hamlet, the untrustworthy daughters of Lear or the aberrant villains of Macbeth. Although all of these are notably evil in their own way, none of them enjoys the same diabolical role as Iago in Othello.

Although many believe that Othello is the central character in this drama, it is Iago who essentially writes the play's main plot. Iago is the key player, and most great Shakespearian actors would give their eye teeth to play this role. He is the skillful green-eyed monster who manipulates Othello into the tragic ending. This is the quintessential jealousy tragedy of Othello, a noble Moor whose love for his wife Desdemona soon turns to tragic mistrust, anger and rage from an unfounded rumor of adultery.

Iago's cunning and craftiness make him a truly dastardly villain. He swindles money from Roderigo who wants Desdemona, convinces Othello that the loyal Cassio is having an affair with the wife, and convinces his wife to do his villainous business. Here is a man with no redeeming graces, a man who is quick on his feet and sees weakness in all of his victims.

My first experience with this play was during the summer of 1943 when I traveled to New York for summer vacation. I saw the great Paul Robeson play the mighty Moor, with Jose Ferrer the epitome of the villain Iago. Uta Hagen played Desdemona. That production has always stuck in my memory, and since then, I have seen good and bad productions of the play. (It is also interesting to note that this play first played on our native soil in 1751 at the Nassau Street Theatre in New York.)

The Marin Shakespeare Company is presenting a very good production of the Bard's play using a straight conventional approach. Aldo Billingslea (The Hairy Ape at Marin Theatre and two seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) makes an interesting Othello. Maybe a bit young for the role, he speaks the verse with conviction. Early on, Billingslea plays the role with almost a school boy crush on Desdemona. However, as he starts to mistrust his wife on the ill advice of Iago, he becomes a raging bull. His arc from love to hatred is excellent.

Paul Sulzman (recipient of three BATCC Awards and two Dean Goodman awards) plays an interesting Iago, not as smarmy as some of the Iagos I have seen. In fact, Sulzman looks too much like a hero to be playing such a villainous character. It takes a while to warm up to his acting, but by the end of the first act, you see what a snake in the grass he is. Sulzman plays the character as a smooth wheeler-dealer whose famous assertion is "I am not what I am."

Jennifer Le Blanc (Marie in Three Blooms) is an excellent Desdemona. She is very serene and lovely as the tragic wife. Tony Davis makes a virile Cassio while Jonathan Gonzalez is competent as Roderigo. Deborah Fink comes into her own as the faithful servant Emilia in the last scene of the play. She displays fire and passion in her accusation of the tragic events caused by her husband Iago. George Maquire has the Shakespearean speech patterns down perfectly in his 15 minute performance as Desdemona's father in the first act.

Cynthia White's direction is good; however, it takes a while to get into the play with the character of Iago not quite brought out as a scoundrel. Conversations between Iago and Roderigo seem to go by fast, and one can get quite lost in the beginnings. The utilitarian set of Venice houses is very well done.

Othello and She Stoops to Conquer will play in rep through August 15th at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre on the Dominican University grounds in San Rafael. The final production of the festival will be the wild west version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which opens on August 27th and runs through September 25th. For tickets call 415-499-4488 or visit www.marinShakespeare.org.


Photo: Kim Taylor


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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