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A dramatic difference

'Othello' sticks to tradition but 'Titus Andronicus' is radically redone at Old Globe's Shakespeare festival.

July 12, 2006|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It had all the makings of a blockbuster and, sure enough, "Titus Andronicus" -- a tale of villainy and revenge, jampacked with exotic characters and gruesome killings -- became one of England's most popular plays of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

A few years later, the play's author, an up-and-comer by the name of William Shakespeare, was back with a story featuring many of the same elements. By this time, however, he had revolutionized the genre of tragedy. So although his "Othello" contained several gasp-inducing murders, it also plunged deeper into the characters' psyches to ponder how such horrific acts could be humanly possible.

Both plays are being performed in the Old Globe's Summer Shakespeare Festival, providing a fascinating opportunity to study the Bard's development as a writer -- or to be enjoyed purely for the spine-shuddering thrills. The tragedies join the frolicsome "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, where they are performed in repertory.

"Othello," directed by Jesse Berger, is given insightful if fairly standard treatment. "Titus Andronicus," staged by Darko Tresnjak, the festival's artistic director, has been radically rethought.

"Titus" audiences enter the amphitheater to find a Roman eagle statue onstage, evoking the story's ancient setting. The political campaign that launches the story is performed not in togas but in the crisp, conservative suits of present-day Washington, D.C.

War hero Titus Andronicus and his soldiers return from battle in sand-colored camouflage. They bring with them a squat cage in which captive Goths have been stripped to their underwear, hands bound with trouser belts.

The soldiers, with Titus' approval, sacrifice the Goth queen's eldest son as recompense for Roman troops killed in action. She in turn vows, "I'll find a day to massacre them all," and so begins a cycle of retribution.

The ensuing bloodshed is playfully gruesome. A gun blast causes an explosion of red glitter, trick knives leave gashes of fake blood and sound effects evoke the squish of metal cutting through flesh.

The dark comedy is fun if revisionist, the modern trappings provocative if not entirely pertinent.

But there can be little quibbling with the performances. As aging military man Titus, Leonard Kelly-Young falls apart quite touchingly, his barking authority giving way to foggy, King Lear-like madness. Celeste Ciulla, playing the Goth queen, exudes malevolent rage, and Owiso Odera, as her henchman and secret lover, is so brainy and witty -- so proudly bloody-minded -- that we can't help but savor his badness.

Several of these characters types reappear in "Othello," though the setting is Venetian rather than Roman. A more traditional approach to the material is signaled by the costumes, designed, as for "Titus," by Linda Cho. Scenes in Venice are dressed in huge starched-lace or ruffled collars. When the action moves to the remote military outpost of Cyprus, the set designer of both productions, Ralph Funicello, swaps portable map tables and wood crates for the richly upholstered, gilded furnishings of Venice.

Othello, like Titus, is a military hero whose straightforward personality is undermined by someone who wishes him ill. Jonathan Peck's rich, basso voice resonates with authority. He's a take-charge type but also a fond husband who lets every other thought fly from him whenever Julie Jesneck, as his twinkling wife, Desdemona, enters the room.

This happiness is extinguished by the plotting Iago, who feels cheated of a military promotion. Karl Kenzler presents an outward show of trustworthiness, behaving as the reluctant bearer of bad news as he drops poison pills of suspicion.

When first seen, Iago wears a villain's flowing black cape, Desdemona a white gown with a feathery collar, so that Othello ends up with a devil at one ear, an angel at the other. As Othello descends into jealousy and rage, Peck's booming is strangled by gasps and sobs. And Shakespeare is revealed as the master dramatist-psychologist he was destined to become.


`Othello' and `Titus Andronicus'

Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, the Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. "Othello," "Titus Andronicus" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" play in repertory. Contact theater for schedule.

Ends: Oct. 1

Price: $19 to $59

Contact: (619) 234-5623 or

Running time: "Othello," 3 hours; "Titus Andronicus, 2 hours, 20 minutes

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