by Terrance Mc Arthur
Shakespeare’s Othello—Whose play is it, anyway?
That’s the question I had after watching the Woodward Shakespeare Festival production (the first of its 14th summer season), which plays through July 7.Othello (LaVon Jean-Pierre), a Moor, has won command of the armies of Venice. He has also won the hand of Desdemona (Alexis Elisa Macedo), and he takes the army and his wife to Cyprus, to head off a Turkish invasion. He takes his trusted lieutenant Cassio (James Anderson), a Florentine, which angers Iago (Casey Ballard), Othello’s next in line, who wanted the job. Iago sets about sewing discord and mistrust with the newlyweds, suggesting that Desdemona and Cassio are lovers. The mighty general turns into an unsure, jealous, abusive spouse, quick to believe the worst. Iago orchestrates the fall of everyone around him, and he leaves the local military to pick up the bodies.
Jean-Pierre has stature, a commanding voice, and noble bearing (accented by Brooke Aiello’s costumes), which stand him well in portraying a strong military figure. When in the grip of jealousy, “the green-eyed monster,” he goes seriously cra-cra (which is not a term used by Shakespeare). He doesn’t fall all at once, but piece by piece as Iago removes his supports of faith and trust. His pace is good, and he takes us with him to the edge of madness.
Macedo comes across as kindhearted (trying to help a disgraced Cassio) and loving (leaving her father and home to follow her husband into foreign territory), becoming distraught as her admirable hero changes into an accusing assaulter.
Ballard’s Iago is a spider, stringing webbing from Othello to Desdemona to Cassio to Roderigo (Alex Serrano), ensnaring his wife Emelia (Laura Dodds) in the process, all in the lace of a handkerchief. Casey has a lot of WSF experience in playing as a man (or a character pretending to be a man), and there is no question that this is Iago. Solicitous, confiding, concerned for the welfare of others, everyone trusts “honest Iago,” who lies, misrepresents, goads onto the path of destruction, and maneuvers others into harming ones who could help them. Ballard is judicious in her malice, not sliding into the style of a melodrama villain who rubs his hands in anticipation of doing evil. In Iago’s eyes, it’s just another day and another plan.
Dodds creates a dutiful wife who starts to grow a backbone as she begins to perceive where her husband’s actions are leading. She’s cheerful, full of spunk, and just as ill fated as the other major characters. Anderson goes from steady friend to pleading drunk in a smooth descent. As Bianca, the Florentine lieutenant’s woman, Summer Sessions is romantic and furious in a well-paced performance, as she is led to believe Cassio is playing around.
Serrano is funny in a “he fell for that” way as Desdemona’s failed suitor who ends up bankrolling Iago. Janice Sales is high umbrage as the father who wants his immigrant son-in-law’s head. The ever-dependable Jessica Reedy is proud and just as the Duke of Venice. Renee Newlove brings cheek to her roles, as usual. Dakota Simpson ‘s costume is as flashy as his role, and David Miller keeps things moving as needed.
The welcome return of Arlene Schulman, who directed WSF’s first Hamlet, provides a solid dramaturgical framework for the actors on the newly-simplified stage that doesn’t make the audience fear for the performers’ safety going up and down the levels. Of course, she cut parts of the script, including the servant-clown, but everything that is needed is there, and it moves.
So, whose play is it? In a tragedy, the main character, a good man, falls, usually because of pride. Othello falls because he loved “not wisely but too well,” listening to the wrong voices, trusting fake news. Iago is overconfident, sure that his traps will never catch him, and so he falls, but he isn’t good. The fall of a good man is a tragedy; the fall of a bad man is justice. William Shakespeare didn’t title the play Iago.
Othello plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through July 7, with the action beginning at 8 p.m. The show is free—Donations are gleefully accepted and seriously sought. Cars entering Woodward Park are charged $5, so some people park across Friant Rd. and take a walk to the stage area. Picnicking before the show is a great start to the evening. Seating is down in front, or bring chairs and blankets for hillside viewing. More info can be found on their website.
Casey Ballard will be in one of KRL’s new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcasts, coming up later this summer. The first episode has already aired, with a new one going up next week. You can check the podcast out on iTunes and Google Play, and also on podbean.
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