Monday, August 09, 2010

Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare Othello 2010 Boston Common

To date I’ve seen Commshakes’ productions of Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors … and now, Othello.

Best one yet.

First let me get a few geeky things out of the way.  The group behind us actually brought a game of Othello, winning serious geek points (Othello at Othello, yes?)  I thought about it, posted it on Twitter, but was unable to find a set in time.  I told these people that, and the lady told me, “Amazon.  Two weeks ago.  I’ve been planning for this.”  She seriously needs to hang out here, because that is one major Shakespeare geek.

On with the show.  I find that I’m always disappointed with Iago in the opening scenes, and I think I know why.  In theory I build him up like some sort of demonic sociopath, and I expect a Charles Manson or Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs sort of figure.  When he inevitably is not I immediately think, “Oh, I don’t like this guy.”  But then he grows on me. 

Othello, on the other hand, I loved.  He’s … perfect.  Sweeps on stage, never loses control over anything.  When they tell him “Desdemona’s father is looking for you!” he calmly goes to look for him, because he knows he’s done nothing wrong.  When he’s basically put on trial for using witchcraft against Desdemona, he again says with absolutely certainty,  “Go ask her yourself.”  He is almost inhuman in this, like “No one is really like that.”  You almost want to see him crumble, just a bit.  Maybe not as much as happens, but just a little.

Before we introduce Desdemona, a word about the setting.  I was trying to place exactly what time frame they were going for, and I think it was WWII.  At first I was thinking they had a sort of Casablanca look about them, and afterwards when we were discussing the show the movie LA Confidential came up.  So imagine this as Desdemona enters, done up like something out of a Lana Turner movie – nicely dressed in a suit, hair swept back under a tiny hat.  Later during a dinner scene she’ll be dressed in a shiny gold evening gown.  I’m painting the best picture I can, here, people.  Work with me. :)

So this Desdemona is … well, she’s a woman. I think with the whole “stolen from her father” thing, Desdemona’s often thought of in an Ophelia-like “this is just a child” sort of way.  Not here.  Here Desdemona is a grown woman who stands up to her father.  Interesting choice.

One of the great things about Othello is that it’s so directly connected to human emotional response.  See that guy there? Yeah, he’s mad at the black guy.  So he’s gonna get that other guy drunk, because he knows that when that dude gets drunk he gets violent.  Cool, that guy got in a fight, now the black guy is pissed off and just fired him.  So he’s gonna go to his boss’s wife and try to get his job back, and the villain guy is going to use that to make the boss think his wife is cheating on him.  There’s not a great deal of politics (although the bits about war and geography and who’s been sent where are a little tricky to follow).  Basically you get to see this guy at the top of the world brought down by his supposedly honest and trustworthy right hand man, Iago.

I wonder if it was this production in particular doing something deliberate, but I never really noticed how much Shakespeare pounds us over the head with a hammer in this one.  It seems like every character, every time, referred to “honest Iago.”  It practically became a running joke, the more villainous he got and the more the people around him got so stupid, saying “Oh, Iago! Someone surely must have been whispering in Othello’s ear to turn him against me!  Since you’re so honest and trustworthy go figure out who could have done such a thing!”  There are many instances where you pretty much feel like everybody else on stage is stupid.  The scene where Iago doesn’t want to say Cassio slept with Desdemona, which then turns into “Welll….I shouldn’t say anything, but he had this dream where he said I love you Desdemona, and then he threw his leg over mine, and kissed me full on the mouth ….” The audience was laughing pretty hard at that.  How could Othello have been so stupid?

Speaking of Othello, he deteriorates nicely.  His perfectly tailored uniform becomes unbuttoned, his tie crooked.  He no longer stands at attention. He repeats himself, he stutters.  One of my favorite scenes comes after Iago has planted the idea of Desdemona’s infidelity in Othello’s mind, and an increasingly crazed Othello pulls a gun on his “ancient”, saying (in appropriately Shakespearean terms), “You show me proof, motherf*cker. You call my wife a whore? You plant this idea in my head to drive me nuts? You bring me proof or you die.”  Othello is not stupid, and that’s part of the point. He knows what he’s been told, and that it is not proof.  But when he confronts Desdemona and she can’t produce the handkerchief?  That, in his mind, is proof.

The big death scene was pretty scary, as expected. It’s always weird when Desdemona seems to start the scene so calmly.  “Why are you planning to kill me, husband? What did I do?”  But by the time he actually means to go through with it she’s screaming and begging for her life.  It’s pretty terrifying.  In this particular production (is it really a spoiler when talking about Shakespeare?) it takes a little while for her to go down, we’ll just say.  There’s a lot more that goes on than just some smothering with a pillow.

I like the ending for the action – Amelia spills the details, Iago kills her and escapes, Othello kills himself.  I do not like all the talking, the emphasis on “We’re gonna torture you later, ok?  You there, don’t forget to torture that guy.  Trust us, we’re gonna torture him.”  Iago’s “I’ll never speak again” line I find hard to pull off.  This is one of those moments where he should be something other than human.  I prefer to go away thinking no, no amount of torture will make him talk.  When he speaks in the same tones he’s spoken throughout the play he sounds like he’ll crack as soon as they’re off stage.

Since Carl mentioned the other day that the last lines of Othello are his favorite, I was waiting for them specifically.  He’s right, it’s a very good ending.  That whole scene is intriguing to me, because here you’ve got a guy who killed his wife, thinking that he was in the right to do so, now surrounded by armed soldiers and having just discovered that he was completely wrong.  So once again he does the “right” thing, and suicides.  I like that part of the ending.  As always with Shakespeare there’s the cleanup bits (“Don’t forget to torture that guy!”) which I think are always just a bit anti-climactic.

Best thing about a play like this is that afterwards we got to discuss it.  We talked about whether it’s a play about racism or not.  Iago never comes out and says “I hate him because he’s black”, but man there’s certainly some racially-charged language in there.  Someone refers to Othello as old “thick-lips”, among other things, and when Iago and Roderigo first wake Brabantio they’re making some pretty obscene beast references. 

Great show.  One of my favorites, by far, for many reasons.  I hope they do some more biggies in the coming years.

4 comments:

christine said...

awesome review!

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of this review with these exceptions: Fred Sullivan Jr., who plays Brabantio, had terrible text work. Acting Shakespeare 101: NEVER do you hit a negative ( CAN not , opposed to can NOT ) and equally important AVOID AVOID AVOID hitting and stressing ALL pronouns. I would expect someone with his credentials to know this and have MUCH better text work with Shakespeare. Many in the cast overlooked many Shakespeare text no-no's which muddles the verse and intent of certain scenes and soliloquies. James Waterston was also guilty of this. I found myself asking "How did this man play Mark Antony and get a job at the Public Theater's prestigious Shakespeare in the Park with such shoddy text work?" Not to mention very strained vocal production. I was not a fan regardless of his interpretation of Iago. He lacked the charisma as well as the dual "public Iago/private Iago" personality which makes this character work. We, the audience, must see why these other characters refer to him as "honest" and "a good man", why they trust him and how he gains so much confidence from Othello. I felt anyone with two eyes could have seen his duplicitous nature very clearly. Why would anyone trust this Iago? The other characters come across as pretty dumb for trusting this man in the first place.
The scene between Emilia and Iago was frustratingly weak. What an amazing opportunity to see the dynamic between these two. it's the only time in the play we see them together. The opportunity was wasted and the handkerchief handoff lacked any power or weight. What a shame.
Othello was quite good.

Duane said...

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a great example of how different people will look for, and see, an entirely different show. It's like that scene at the end of the Matrix where Neo finally figures out he's The One (even though his name has been a big clue all his life ;)) and while other people see the scene in front of them, he sees the scrolling computer code.

Great content. Thanks, Anonymous! I agree with your points ago Iago, I was pretty surprised that the audience was laughing so much at how stupid everybody ended up looking. I didn't really give a second thought to Brabantio, other than "He's just a great comic presence (Bottom, Jacques...) it's a shame they don't have a meatier role for him this year."

I take it you're a professional actor of some capacity? I'd call you JM but he has no reason to be anonymous all of a sudden, and I don't often hear him use the expression "text work". Though I expect the two of you might get along famously :)

JM said...

This time Duane, completely out of character for me, I'm totally innocent. But probably only because I don't live in Boston. :)