Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

California Shakespeare Theatre Presents a Bold New Production of Othello

Also see Richard's reviews of Dolly West's Kitchen, What's Wrong with Angry? and The Thousandth Night

Sarah Grace Wilson, Bruce McKenzie (center), and Billy Eugene Jones
California Shakespeare Theatre has begun its 2005 season with William Shakespeare's volatile masterpiece Othello at the Bruns Amphitheater in the rolling hills of Contra Costa County just outside of Orinda. This is a beautiful setting for an outside stage with amazing natural acoustics where every word of the Bard's plays can be heard.

Othello is one of the Bard's most performed plays and Iago has been considered one of the greatest villains of all time. The tragedy of Othello fleshes out Shakespeare's arguably most harrowing, skin-crawling psychological drama. Many great actors have made the characters mesmerizing over the years. I saw the 1943 production which had a superb cast with Paul Robeson playing the Moor, Jose Ferrer as Iago and Uta Hagen as Desdemona. I have seen many performances both in this country and the UK since that time, including a production with Sir Lawrence Olivier playing the Moor with a West Indian accent.

Othello is the kind of play that can take place in any period and still be relevant to today's world. It is a strong commentary on racism, especially in this production as Iago states vehemently to the audience at the start of the play his hatred for his captain Othello. He screams out the words "I hate him, I hate him, I hate him," and you know it is racially motivated.

Shakespeare's tragedy has been filmed over twenty times including film productions from Japan and Soviet Union. There have been numerous productions on television, including a recent BBC production which takes place at New Scotland Yard with Paul Sulzman of Oz fame playing Police Commissioner John Othello. A recent unintentionally camp film called O had to be the most laughable production with Josh Hartnett playing "Hugo," Mekhi Phifer as "Odin," and Julia Stiles as "Desi Brandle."

Director Sean Daniels has put a completely different spin on this tragedy, presenting some interesting performances with a very small cast. Excellent Shakespearean actor Hector Correa has been assigned several roles, including the ragingly racist father of Desdemona Brabantio and Gratiano who seems to report on his own death as the father of Desdemona in the second act. There are only two members of the Venetian council and a very tiny army dressed in Desert Battle fatigues. The Othello character is in a faux naval uniform that is straight out of a Sigmund Romberg operetta. Venice and Cyprus are still the locations but they are far removed from these places in appearance since the small army looks as if they are located either in Afghanistan or Iraq. Everything takes place on a bare stage with a two-tier weather-beaten plywood structure with slanted transparent panels on top. Lighting structures double as watchtowers and sometimes you see soldiers at the ready, with guns pointing at the audience. Even the natural brown hills in the back of the stage give credence to this setting.

Many directors trim this drama for outdoor theatre but Sean Daniels has gone the long route with a full-length three-hour production with one intermission. The director is helming a bold production that is meant for modern day youthful audiences; this is not a classic production one would have seen at the Old Vic or the Stratford upon Avon years ago.

Billy Eugene Jones (recently on Broadway in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean and the revival of A Raisin in the Sun) looks and acts like a young and raw Othello as he goes from a loving and gentle husband to a raging inferno in the last scenes. His speech cadence is modern and he makes an exceptional presence on the stage as the jealous Moor. Bruce McKenzie (founding member of the Sledgehammer Theatre in San Diego and Los Angeles actor) certainly gives a different spin on Iago. He gives a "sledgehammer performance" as the insidious fellow. McKenzie plays the character as if he has just escaped from the Napa Mental Institute and is most certainly a psychopath that one sees in those "slasher" movies today. The actor gives out with clipped and controlled speeches. He sputters and storms and jerks around like a helpless puppet. It is a disturbing performance.

Sara Grace Wilson (New York actress The Story, Voyage of the Carcass, Valhalla) seems out of her element as Desdemona. She is very frothy in the role and seems to be reciting the Bard's words. There are times when her voice is weak and you can barely hear her; there is no projection in her words. She finally comes into her own during the last twenty minutes of the play with some very good acting as the frightened wife of Othello.

T. Edward Webster (Blue/Orange, Lobby Hero, Man of Destiny at the Aurora) plays Roderigo as a spoiled rich kid who is very egotistical about winning the fair Desdemona. He is probably the most agile Roderigo I have ever seen. Catherine Castellanos (Cal Shakes actress in All's Well That End Well and Henry IV last year) gives a good performance as the pliant and loyal Emilia. She is especially fine in the last twenty minutes of this tragedy as she attempts to tell the truth about her husband Iago. Nicholas Pelczar (Dublin Carol at the Aurora) plays a good-natured Cassio, almost understated but well acted. Lisa Anne Morrison (Shakespeare in Hollywood at TheatreWorks) has a small role as Bianca but she does a nice performance in the role.

Hector Correa (Henry V last year and is Artistic Director of Pacific Alliance) in his three roles of Brabantio, Montano and Gratiano and Chris Ayles (Cal Shakes production of Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Richard II) as the The Duke and Lodovico are true Shakespearean actors. They have the Bard's cadence down perfectly and are a joy to watch in their roles. The small cast is rounded out by Alec Teicheira and D. Anthony Harper as soldiers. They have little to do but to look like members of the Desert Storm troupe.

Othello ran through July 3rd at the California Shakespeare Theatre, Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre, Gateway Boulevard exit from Highway 24 between Berkeley and Orinda. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit

The summer repertoire will continue with The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby Parts One and Two starting July 13 and running through September 18 and ends the season with William Shakespeare's The Tempest opening on September 28th.

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

- Richard Connema

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