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Theater Review: Othello

Like all great tragedies, Othello is pretty much failsafe. No matter how many times you've seen it, you still find yourself hoping against hope that the inevitable, awful denouement won't come to pass -- and you're still startled and moved when it does.

That's true even when the production's uneven, like the current one at Lost Nation. LNT's version should work a lot better than it does. It has all the elements: a tall, hunky Othello (Esau Pritchett) with a sonorous voice and charisma to spare; an Iago (Gus Kaikkonen) with a sly, insinuating charm; a director, Jana Tift, with an intelligent take on the play; and a stunning set and light design by David Ferguson that evokes both the nautical milieu of Othello's military success and the shroud that hangs over his future.

The opening tableau suggests both the potential and the problems of Tift's approach. We first see Othello alone, an imposing, almost archetypal figure. Then Iago and Desdemona (Elizabeth Capin-era) step from behind him, flanking him on either side. The rest of the cast stands impassively in the background, all in black and wearing half-masks. A handkerchief floats down to the stage from above, a gong sounds, and the masked revelers scatter off into the wings, cackling.

According to the playbill, the time is 2050, and we're watching "A Troupe of Actors Perform an Ancient Tale." I don't think this premise would be evident otherwise, but the series of images is striking nonetheless, suggesting carnival time in Venice -- one of the play's two settings, along with the island nation of Cyprus -- and a world in which everyone's truth is masked. It also sets up the allegory Tift sees at the heart of the play: Othello as an everyman confronted with a choice between order and chaos, opposites that are represented by Desdemona's love and Iago's lies, but also exist within himself.

That's fine as a framework, as long as the actors are allowed to flesh it out. But as presented here, Iago's role is given so much more nuance than Desdemona's that the balance is thrown out of whack. And while Pritchett's Othello has a commanding presence and some truly wrenching moments -- including a horrifically convincing epileptic fit -- he has yet to settle into Shakepeare's language with consistency and is often hard to understand. As a result, his Othello remains more icon than fully realized character.

Kaikkonen's Iago, though, is disarmingly human. Unlike most of the cast, he wears black throughout; in his ribbed shirt, black jeans and scruffy beard, he looks like a downtown artist with mob connections. He's rough-edged but ingratiating; when he shares with us his evil plan to dupe Othello into believing Desdemona is a whore, it's like having a con man fill you in on his trade secrets. In scenes with his wife Emilia (played with nicely wry understatement by Kathy Manfre) and with Desdemona's frustrated suitor Rodrigo (an expert comic turn by Jim Azelvandre), Kaikkonen makes it deliciously clear why Iago is so good at manipulating others: No matter how much chaos he's unleashing, he always keeps himself in control.

That Iago should be more interesting than Desdemona is not altogether unexpected. When it comes to dramatic conflict, evil is always more fun than good, and Iago is one of Shakespeare's most gloriously evil villains. But Desdemona's more than just the virtuous face of domestic order. She also represents the uncontrollable forces of sexual attraction, the chaos in the blood; after all, she's a wo-man who was swept away by love.

Yet -- and this seems to be both an acting and a directing problem -- there is little chemistry between Pritchett and Capinera. Their embraces are prim, decorous. She's more pert than passionate, and he tends to declaim even in their most intimate moments. When Othello, consumed with suspicion that his wife is unfaithful, asks to touch her hand, he launches into a poetic conceit that's both threatening and sexually charged: "This hand is moist, my lady…" But Pritchett plays only the portent, not the attraction Othello still feels for her.

The one moment that suggests sexual heat between the couple occurs off stage. Roused from his bridal bed by a noisy fight, Othello, enters with his shirt off as if he's been interrupted in mid-clinch -- although the real reason for this entrance may simply be that Pritchett looks good with his shirt off. Capinera never gets to show anywhere near that much flesh. Perhaps to emphasize the character's reserve, Tift and designer Kate Jansyn Thaw have decided to clothe her for most of the play in a monkish, long-sleeved, ankle-length tunic, buttoned up almost to her neck.

Like Desdemona's, many of the costumes seem to be at cross-purposes, shaped to accommodate directorial concept rather than the actors' expressiveness. This is particularly true of the male courtiers. Their outfits attempt to layer contemporary style with "ancient" accents, but the combination of sports jackets and ties (more 1970 than 2050) with military sashes and swords comes off as more comical than evocative, and is almost to a man unflattering and uncomfortable-looking. When the Duke of Venice and assorted senators meet in an early scene to discuss military matters, it looks like a gathering of Elks Clubbers girded for an odd initiation rite.

Despite these distractions, the production is a thoroughly honorable effort. Tift keeps the pace brisk, building momentum until those final terrible moments. And as in any other effective Othello, I still found myself hoping that, just this once, the dude would wise up and let Desdemona live.

I didn't think when I planned my reviewing schedule this week that I'd be able to establish any links between Shakespeare's Othello and A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, which opened last Wednesday at Stowe Theatre Guild. But sure enough, there are three: an off-kilter love triangle (Greg, a married New York City businessman in mid-life crisis, falls passionately in love with Sylvia, a stray canine); jealousy (Greg's wife Kate hates Sylvia); and Shakespearean asides (Kate, an English teacher, turns to the audience at frequent intervals and quotes the Bard).

Those asides, which are invariably apt but too cute by half, don't quite work, at least not in this production. Neither does the moment when the three main characters suddenly break into a rendition of Cole Porter's "Every Time I Say Goodbye." Or the too-extended romantic reconciliation dance number at the end.

But that's about all that doesn't work. What works fabulously well -- and what has to work if an audience is to buy the play -- is the convention that Sylvia, the dog, looks, acts and talks like an attractive, if flighty, young woman. That is, she's played by an attractive young woman (Jana Beagley). The characters, including Sylvia herself, know she's a dog -- but for Greg (Joe Mara) she's also a surrogate child/mistress/confidant, and for Kate (Megan Carder) she's the rival for her husband's affections. So Gurney gives us the conversations that would happen if Sylvia could talk, and if she were capable of all the feelings her master and mistress conjure up for her.

A 1995 play, Sylvia has become a standby of regional and community theater; it was performed most recently in this area by Vermont Stage. I'd never seen it before, though, and I will wager that if you haven't either, or maybe even if you have, you'll be delighted by Stowe's production. Directed by Tom Carder, it captures two very specific milieus with style and accuracy: the world of cultured, middle-aged New York empty-nesters and the Domain of Dog. Megan Carder is elegantly on target as Kate both in dress and demeanor, and believably panicked when she sees her husband literally going to the dogs. Mara is funny and touching as the workaday shlub surprised by joy. Brent Camp-bell, Jane Harissis and Andrea Freeman are sharply comic in supporting roles.

And best of all, Jana Beagley is entrancingly goofy in the title role. Reminiscent of a taller, lankier Shelley Duvall, she says she studied lots of dog behavior to prepare herself for Sylvia, and it shows. She's particularly good at realizing Gurney's inspired English-language equivalents for dog-speak. For instance, barking goes like this: "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" Imagine each "hey" coming faster and nastier than the one before and you'll get the idea of what Beagley sounds like. It's hilarious. Whether bounding about the room, humping the available leg or gazing lasciviously at an object of lust in the dog park, she manages to convey both dog-ness and girl-ness at one and the same time.

At least one woman I know resented Gurney's equation of dog and girl. I can see where Sylvia's antics might stir that kind of discomfort, but I think the joke in this case is really on the foolishness of men and their mid-life fantasies. Speaking of which, Sylvia is not to be confused with Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? -- that other play about a middle-aged man enamored of a four-legged friend. Both men have pets named Sylvia, and both plays quote the same Shakespeare lyric. But Gurney's Greg doesn't get quite as involved with his Sylvia as Albee's protagonist does with his -- for which Sylvia the dog, unlike Sylvia the goat, can be thankful.

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