Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Why Being Good Isn't Good Enough:
Othello at STNJ

Also see Bob's review of The Sound of Music

Othello, a noble Moor in the service of Venice, is truly a good man. He is gentle, loving, loyal, fair, trusting and bravely triumphant in battle. However, the villainous Iago knows that there is weakness in his very goodness, and he will be able to use it for his own purposes:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.

The current Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production of Shakespeare's Othello is a good one. It is direct, clear, well acted, honest to the text and, as an introduction to one of Shakespeare's great tragedies, it is certainly commendable.

However, in its virtues also lie its limitations. This straightforward production makes no discernible attempt at anything large or striking either in its individual performances or in its directorial interpretation. Thus, for anyone who is familiar with Othello, this full three hour production could prove to be enervating.

(Top to bottom:) Paul Mullins as Iago and Raphael Nash Thompson as Othello
It is common in reviews of productions of Othello to read that the actor playing Iago stole the show from the title player. However, the steal would have to be the other way around, as the largest, most interesting and compelling role is that of Iago. Thus, it is no surprise that the excellent Paul Mullins dominates the proceedings with his solid reading of the role. Its greatest strength is in its icy clarity. Mullins always hits the right notes. However, he has not been encouraged to do anything to startle us. There are no unexpected moments of madness or doubt or eccentricity or compassion. As has been written about composer Richard Rodgers, it was his ability not to write the "right" note, but to take our ear in an unexpected direction that made him great.

The physically towering Raphael Nash Thompson looks like the perfect actor to play the role of Othello. Thompson reads the lines as written, obscuring neither their poetry nor meaning. He may be a little overly mild and sweet in the beginning, and his transition from being a man of love and reason to one filled with jealousy and vengeance may be too swift and sudden, but that is all in the text. However, there is no subtext or sense of an inner life below the surface in his performance.

Caralyn Kozlowski is a lovely and convincing Desdemona. Jennifer Van Dyck brings passion to Emilia, especially when turning on Iago after allowing herself to be used in his plot against Othello.

Principal among the other featured players, Michael Stewart Allen (Roderigo), Gregory Derelian (Casio), John FitzGibbon (Brabantio), Erin Lynlee Partin (Bianca) and Greg Jackson (Lodovico) all perform well.

Scott Wentworth's direction is clean and clear. However, it is neither swift nor probing. Post intermission, the play itself has so many scenes and intricacies delaying the climactic events that it requires richer theatricality and deeper character interpretation for the play not to feel unnecessarily dragged out. Additionally, if the characters had been made more idiosyncratic and compelling, the off putting placement of the set would not have been such an annoying distraction.

Wentworth has chosen to place his set on a 45 degree angle from the front of the auditorium so that it faces stage left, leaving those sitting stage right to watch the play from the side at an odd, distancing angle. Absolutely nothing is done with the open space created at stage right, and almost the entire play is staged straight out from the 45 degree angle of the stage toward the side auditorium wall. (I suggest that you seek seats on the right side of the center of the house - stage left - when purchasing tickets.) Wentworth may well have had some staging or interpretive ideas in mind. Possibly, he wanted to set himself a challenge. Unfortunately, the result is that we end up with a baffling and distracting staging oddity that makes no discernible sense and detracts from an audiences ability to enjoy the play.

The set by Michael Schweikardt, largely in tones of unfinished wood and featuring three double doors to the back and stage left side for entrances and exits, allows for quick scene transitions. Only benches serve as furnishings until the final scene when a bed and backing curtain materialize. The effects meant to be provided by the curtain behind the bed lose their impact because of the odd angle of the staging. The costumes by Marion Williams are excellent. They appear acceptably in period and appropriate to the station and sensibility of the characters. They are also quite handsome.

Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte might get by with solid, but stolid, well acted productions like the current Othello as well as other classics. However, it will not result in the kind of electricity and attention which makes for must see theatre. Several years ago, Bonnie Monte was creating excitement with her rediscovery of plays by the relatively obscure Alexander Ostrovsky (the delightful Artists and Admirers among them) and by producing the work of the brilliant Daniel Fish including his extraordinarily insightful re-setting of Merry Wives of Windsor.

Being good was not good enough for Shakespeare's Moor of Venice because he was tragically flawed. Being good should not be good enough for Bonnie J. Monte because she has shown that she is too extraordinarily talented an artistic director not to do better.

Othello continues at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through November 23 on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600; online:

Othello by William Shakespeare; directed by Scott Wentworth. Cast (in order of appearance): Michael Stewart Allen (Roderigo); Paul Mullins (Iago); John FitzGibbon (Brabantio); Raphael Nash Thompson (Othello); Gregory Derelian (Cassio); Joseph Costa (Duke); Joe Fellman (Gratiano); Greg Jackson (Lodovico); Caralyn Kozlowski (Desdemona); Mark Elliot Wilson (Montano); Jennifer Van Dyck (Emilia); Erin Lynlee Partin (Bianca); Matthew Cavanna, Andrew Doyle, Adam Meyer, David Villalobos (Officers)

Photo: Gerry Goodstein

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Bob Rendell

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