No wonder Othello is so angry. How could he not be, when Shakespeare gave him title billing in a play, then turned around and heaped all the zingy lines, not to mention the laughs, on that weaselly underling Iago?
The scheming ensign who topples the great general once again emerged as the audience favorite in free weekend performances of "Othello" by Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater. Presented at Cal State Los Angeles, the touring production was hosted by Shakespeare Festival/LA, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts' Shakespeare in American Communities initiative.
Before Friday's performance (the first of three), bus after bus pulled up in front of the Luckman Theatre to disgorge high school students, many of whom were attending their first live presentation of Shakespeare. Fortunately, they got to see a production lavished with first-rate trappings by one of the nation's foremost regional theaters. Unfortunately, they were provoked into a symphony of seat-squeaking boredom by a 3-hour, 10-minute rendition of the play that tended toward old-fashioned declamation rather than modern, psychological realism.
At least attendees had Bill McCallum's Iago to keep them entertained. One of the more inspired elements of this staging by Joe Dowling, the Guthrie's artistic director, was to have the ugly-souled character played by the sort of strapping, handsome actor generally associated with heroic roles.
Playing wonderfully against type, McCallum rendered the villain with a mix of slyness and oiliness that made theatergoers simultaneously love him and hate him.
The production's other most notable inspiration was to reenvision the action in Victorian accouterments, which provided added context by, for instance, showing Othello's pure, radiant bride, Desdemona, trapped not only in an increasingly violent marriage but also in elaborately torturous cinched and bustled gowns.
Cheyenne Casebier's statuesque Desdemona was no mere twig for Othello to snap. She was nearly as tall as her barrel-chested boxer of an Othello, played by Lester Purry. Virginia S. Burke's Emilia, on the other hand, was considerably tinier than her husband, Iago. Yet her feisty spirit and gutsy defiance made her the production's most admirable character.
As always, the characters' sneering assumptions about the Moorish Othello provided timeless insight into racism's corrosive effect on both perpetrator and victim. And current events echoed in Othello's worry that a scuffle among his troops would serve as a bad example in the restive, war-rattled region of which he had been appointed peacekeeper.
But overall, an audience new to Shakespeare would have been better served by the streamlined, modern-dress "Othello" performed in Cerritos in mid-March by the touring Aquila Theatre Company, also as part of the Shakespeare in American Communities program. That production crackled in ways that this one -- with its dramatically declaimed lines and ardent gestures, yet nary a jot of genuine emotion -- did not.