Sunday, August 7, 2016

Othello (Shakespeare By The Sea 2016 Production) Theatre Review

Every summer, the Shakespeare By The Sea company takes two Shakespeare plays on the road, performing them in various locations all over Los Angeles and Orange counties. This year, for the company’s nineteenth season, the two plays are Cymbeline and Othello, and last night the company brought Othello to Encino, performing it at Los Encinos State Historic Park. The stage used for the play is a different configuration than what they used for Cymbeline, which means they’re carrying pieces for two different sets in their truck. The actors help construct the set for each performance.

This production begins with the first line of Act I Scene iii, “There is no composition in these news/That gives them credit.” It then adds a brief (and silent) wedding scene between Othello and Desdemona before going back to Scene i. Othello (Phillip C. Curry) is significantly older than Desdemona (Melissa Booey) in this production. Like a few decades older. So there is the interesting (and unspoken) dynamic that she is perhaps seeking a new father figure, replacing her father, which could give her actual father, Brabantio, more cause to be disturbed and upset by this marriage. Of course, Chris Nelson, who plays Brabantio, seems too young for the role, so that possible direction for exploration into the relationship is partially lost.

Curry has a strong voice, full of pride, and you get the sense that it is that very characteristic, his pride, which leads to Othello’s being misguided by Iago. When Brabantio cries out, “My daughter,” and someone asks if she is dead, and he replies, “Ay, to me,” Othello, standing stage left, actually laughs. It’s an interesting touch, and it sets him apart even further. And when Iago goes to fetch Desdemona, Othello delivers his lengthy speech to the audience, only occasionally addressing the other characters on stage. In addressing us, he seems to further separate himself from those around him, as his pride makes him feel he doesn’t need their acceptance or understanding. He can be threatening too, with a violence bubbling just below the surface, as when he grabs Iago by the wrist on “Be sure of it!

It is Iago, however, who dominates the play. Patrick Vest is excellent as Iago. His costume is dominated by blacks and reds, which might be obvious for a villain, but which works. His relationship to, and manipulation of Roderigo is established early and clearly. Roderigo (Dorian Tayler) is a pitiable character, but you grow to have some sympathy for him, partly because of Tayler’s remarkable performance. The second time Iago tells Roderigo to put money in his purse, he actually takes Roderigo’s purse, and before the third time he tells him, he looks into the purse and is clearly disappointed by the little he sees inside. It’s a nice touch, and Vest does a great job with the speech at the end of the scene. Tayler is really good in the scene where he determines to get his jewels back from Desdemona.

In Act II Scene i, Cassio kisses Emilia on each cheek and then briefly on the lips, giving fuel to Iago’s own jealousy and suspicions. And interestingly, when Iago speaks of Cassio touching Desdemona’s hand, everyone else on stage slows their motions. It’s a strong effect, and what is interesting is that it puts us more in Iago’s state of mind, in a way aligning us with the villain, almost making us like him. The effect is used again when Iago speaks to Roderigo. The two take center stage while the others move to the sides of the stage and slow their motions. Later, Iago’s stabbing of Roderigo is done in slow motion.

Bryson Allman does a good job as Cassio, even playing him drunk fairly well (something that is not all that easy). Othello turns his back on Cassio on “But never more be officer of mine.” Melissa Booey is also quite good as Desdemona. She is particularly great as she speaks to Othello on Cassio’s behalf. And there are a few nice (and needed) moments of warmth between Othello and Desdemona in that scene. Also impressive is Olivia Schlueter-Corey as Emilia. The moment where she picks up the handkerchief is wonderful. Seeing it fall, she automatically picks it up to give it back to Desdemona as she follows her and Othello out, but then stops, while facing upstage. Even though she is facing away from us, we can read her thoughts through her body language, even before she turns to us to deliver her speech. It’s a really good moment. And then she is playful with Iago regarding the handkerchief, which is nice. Because otherwise it can be easy for an audience to turn on her. There are always moments when we can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t say something about the handkerchief earlier. Schlueter-Corey really shines in the scene with Desdemona at the end of the fourth act. She pauses before “But I do think it is their husbands’ faults,” which is great. And her delivery of “or say they strike us” is pointed, which again is excellent. This speech is the moment when her character really opens up, and we’re able to see the real Emilia.

Emilia is with Desdemona at the beginning of Act V Scene ii, while Desdemona sleeps, a nice touch. She then of course exits before Othello enters to deliver his famous “It is the cause” speech. Othello uses Desdemona’s pillow to suffocate her. Interestingly, when he says he took by the throat the circumcised dog, he grabs Iago by the throat. But of course the blade is for himself.

There are quite a few cuts in the play. Othello’s herald is cut, as are the musicians and clown from the beginning of Act III. The Clown is also cut from the beginning of Act III Scene iv. And there are various other cuts. The company makes good use of the space, often entering and exiting through the audience. Two microphones at the front of the stage pick up the actors’ voices, for those toward the back of the audience. And at times music plays over the speakers during a scene. Ocean sound effects are played over the speakers during the scene in which they talk about the sea battle at the beginning of Act II.

Othello was directed by Stephanie Coltrin. The production includes one twenty-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene iii. There are still a few more chances to catch this show, with performances scheduled for Seal Beach, Manhattan Beach, Laguna Niguel and San Pedro. Visit the Shakespeare By The Sea website for details.

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