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Cast lifts 'Othello' in season opener

June 10, 2005|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

It is a round, unvarnish'd tale delivered by "Othello," which opens the summer repertory season at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. Director Ellen Geer and company propel William Shakespeare's masterpiece of toxic jealousy past some tonal bumps with plain-spoken precision.

Audiences have responded to the interracial psychology and thwarted ambition of "Othello" since 1604, and the title role has tested tragedians from Edmund Kean to Laurence Fishburne. We open in Venice, where scheming Iago (Jim LeFave) manipulates Roderigo (Jeff Wiesen). He is piqued that Desdemona (Willow Geer), the daughter of prominent senator Brabantio (William Dennis Hunt), has eloped to Cyprus with the Moor Othello (James Avery, alternating with Steve Matt). Iago, as he informs us, has profoundly evil plans, which include wife Emilia (Melora Marshall) and Othello's lieutenant, Cassio (understudy Travis Brazil, in for Aaron Hendry), and which end in tragedy.

Ellen Geer observes shrewd cuts in her clean staging. Elizabeth Huffman's smart costume pulls are striking, and the fervent cast is creditable. Avery makes a sonorous, instinctive Othello, doubly heartbreaking because this Moor should know better. As Iago, LeFave takes the risk of playing joviality and venom simultaneously. It certainly makes for entertaining asides, and he is nothing if not intense.

The age gap between Avery and Willow Geer's lovely, heartfelt Desdemona dilutes the sensuality, yet creates a fascinating paternalistic clash with Hunt's superb Brabantio. Wiesen could dial back the early peevishness a bit, but he hurls himself into Roderigo. Marshall is a fierce, funny Emilia, and Brazil makes a vivid Cassio. Gaven Van Over (Montano), Jules Willcox (Bianca) and Mike Peebler's double-duty Duke and Ludovico are other standouts.

The prologue of dancers Lexi Pearl and Will Watkins accompanied by composer Marshall McDaniel and Ameena Khawaja is superfluous yet agreeable. There are occasional oddities of tempo and attack. Othello's lethal methods, though chilling, render Desdemona's final stanzas even more implausible than written, and showing Iago's comeuppance is not a choice to which I'm partial. Still, few summer pleasures compare with hearing Shakespeare in the open air of this irreplaceable space. Those who love "Othello" not wisely but too well will find it bracing.



Where: Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga

When: 3 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Sept. 25

Price: $15-$25

Contact: (310) 455-3723 or

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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