Who would you bring to Othello? Someone you love? Someone you once loved?
Summer. Not exactly the time of year a New Yorker wants to venture into Hell’s Kitchen on a Friday night. Tourists. Bad smells. Bad-smelling tourists. Every out-of-towner at this time of year wants to get drunk, screw one another, and go to musicals. And the Friday I was slated to see Oberon Ensemble’s production of Othello, directed by Cara Reichel, was no exception.
When assessing a play like Othello, the question is not, is it good? Of course it’s good. Shakespeare is—well, you know, pretty good. Was the production fresh, or was it rotten? That is the question.
The stage is sparse. A few lanterns hang from low ropes. As the lights dim, two musicians enter, one with a violin (Whitney Kam Lee), and one with a djembe (Rene Reyes) and they assume their positions on stage. As they play, Othello (Daniel Morgan Shelley) and Desdemona (Jennifer Blood) take the stage for a brief, choreographed dance as preface to the play, as Othello begins after they’ve already fallen in love and married. This dance was a new idea, I suppose, but I could take it or leave it.
The music, however, was one of the freshest components of Oberon’s production. Admittedly, when I heard that a djembe drum was to play a role in the production, it gave me pause—I pictured a kind of horrid vaudeville of non-Western stereotyping—but the East-meets-West duet was a subtle, effective accompaniment throughout the play, and the musicians were very skilled. The violinist even moved among the actors and, at certain poignant moments, such as Desdemona’s remembrance of Barbary’s song as she readies for bed (which turns out to be her deathbed), seemed to echo the pitch of the characters’ inner states.
As the play begins, we see Stewart Walker as Iago. With the clear candor of his voice, and his cheerful demeanor, he seems more like Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing fame than the infamous Iago. I was a little worried. How could he go from Benedick to the Iago we know and hate in just a couple of hours?
Whether the actors successfully distracted me from a pompous Neanderthal seated beside me became a kind of odometer for their performances. Othello (Shelley) was mostly successful; Desdemona was largely unsuccessful. Where she should have been Desdemona, the daughter who, unbeknownst to her father, rebels against tradition and marries Othello, she acts as fragile and gullible as Ophelia, eyes downcast and body too stiff when still and too scattily hysterical when in motion, so that when others exclaim how great she is, “the divine Desdemona,” Cassio says at one point, I’d cock my head to one side and think, “Her?” She does redeem herself right before she dies, as Blood seems to play a repressed despair quite well, but she did have the violinist and Jessica Angleskhan as Emilia, whose performance was wonderful, to help her out. Angleskhan’s Emilia and Walker’s Iago, and their interactions, diverted my attention most from the Delta Gnu doofus—at times, I almost forgot he was there. Walker’s Iago, as it turned out, did successfully transform from a Benedick at the beginning to one of the most infamous villains ever written. Even the quality of Walker’s face, paired with some great lighting design, made him almost into a different person. The audience’s experience mimicked the experience of the other characters of the play, and were you new to the plot, Iago’s metamorphosis would be utterly shocking. Simon Feil as Cassio was pretty successful, and Jane Cortney’s great performance as Bianca, though a small role, also stole the spotlight from the Trumpish twit.
Othello, as many of us know, is the story of true love’s undoing at the hand of a sociopath who manipulates tiny, seemingly insignificant things. A lost handkerchief spells the end of Othello’s trust in Desdemona. A few choice words from Iago’s lips introduce the suspicion that would kill both Desdemona and Othello by Othello’s own hand. Strange creatures we are that impart so much meaning to a few words and the loss of a small token. Strange creatures we also are that a few tiny transgressions by our fellow man can so color our own experiences of life.
The play is good. Of course, it’s good. It’s Shakespeare. This Othello is fresh, and the acting is, overall, quite compelling.
Presented by Oberon Theatre Ensemble
The Kirk @ Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10th Avenues) New York, NY 10036
Performance Dates: June 3, 2010 – June 27, 2010
Run Time: 3 Hours with 1 intermission Click Here to purchase tickets
Ticket Prices: $25.00