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THEATER REVIEW : Accessible Tragedy in Ojai Staging of 'Othello' : Shakespeare's story remains timeless. The three-hour performance at Libbey Park moves quickly.

August 11, 1994|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For many audiences, "Othello" may be Shakespeare's most accessible tragedy: The characters and motivation are simply and clearly delineated, and the situations are timeless.

The Ojai Shakespeare Festival's production of the play concludes this weekend at beautiful, warm Libbey Park. The show is long--over three hours--but moves quickly, and few observers are likely to accuse director Paul Backer of providing a boring evening.

Othello, general of the Duke of Venice's army, has appointed young Cassio his lieutenant, passing over the ambitious Iago. Furious at the slight, Iago plots against Othello, first taking advantage of racial prejudice (Othello is black; his wife, Desdemona, white). He then manipulates people to believe that Desdemona is carrying on an affair with Cassio. Enraged by jealousy, Othello retaliates.

Some present-day parallels can be drawn, chiefly regarding the dangers of hasty judgment that's based on innuendo, false leaks, circumstantial and forged evidence.

Though the tragedy is Othello's, the play might well have been named "Iago," after the scheming central figure. Trusted by virtually everyone, he sets former friends against one another and is eventually responsible for several deaths; only in the final scene is his treachery revealed to the others, and by then his damage has been incontrovertibly wrought.

He's such a thoroughly rotten character that Iago is easy to overplay into a mustache-twirling villain. To his own and director Backer's great credit, Vincent Wares underplays the role somewhat, leading the audience to accept that the other characters could believe the man's lie upon lie. Another positive aspect of toning down Iago a bit is that it allows a richer portrayal of Othello, who can look like a buffoon if he seems to be too easily fooled. That role, the buffoon, goes to the vain, somewhat effete Roderigo, played with great comic effect by Cecil Sutton.

Other main characters include virtuous Desdemona, nicely played by Brenda Kenworthy; Iago's easily misled wife, Emilia, portrayed by Jill Macy (who rises to full strength in the final act); and the reliable James Leslie as Cassio.

Shriff Hasan, an actor imported from Alabama for the occasion, gives his portrayal of Othello a naturalistic, rather modern interpretation that works well in this production.

Not only is the show played well, it looks good, thanks in no small part to the lovely single set designed by Jeff G. Rack, who has worked on previous festival and Santa Paula Theater Center productions. The luxurious costumes were designed and coordinated by Lisa Foley.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the festival presents a program called "Renaissance Farce." Directed by Backer and Terry Donovan-Smith, it's a series of sketches, most of them from Renaissance-era European sources (though one's from Japan), in the commedia dell'arte tradition--which here means lots of physical comedy, punning repartee, topical references and other assorted merriment. The highlight, a burlesque of "Othello," is buried in the middle of the two-hour show, which ends rather anticlimactically with a "nose contest," in which the players boast of the length of their proboscises. Better the two skits should be reversed in the program.

The ensemble cast includes Frankie Cohen, Geoff Foley, Richard Goad, Jill Greenwood, Wendy Maroney, Chris Palmquist, Zoe Pietrycha, Rachel Pratt, Mark Thomas, Benjamin Wallace, Elizabeth Wallace and Deborah Wolk.

Various permutations of the festival's resident Measure for Measure Minstrels contribute musical interludes before and during both shows, under the leadership of Jaye Hersh.

Details

Renaissance Farce

* WHERE: Libbey Bowl, Libbey Park, Ojai at Signal Streets, Ojai.

* WHEN: Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m.

* COST: All tickets $5.

* ETC.: Seating is non-reserved, largely on a shaded lawn. Ground cover is suggested. For further information, call 646-9455.

"Othello."

* WHERE: Libbey Bowl, Libbey Park, Ojai at Signal Streets, Ojai.

* WHEN: Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

* COST: $15 general admission on Saturdays; $12 on Friday and Sunday; $10 ($8 for seniors) on Thursday. Teen-agers, $4 all performances; children under 13 free if accompanied by an adult. Unreserved bench or lawn seating.

* ETC.: Some scenes may be too intense for young children. The Measure for Measure Madrigal Singers perform each night beginning at 6:30. For further information, call 646-9455.

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