KPBS AIRDATE: August 13, 1997
Theatre is a collaborative process. The creative talent must be in synch, all aiming toward a particular vision, all focused on serving the text. When the director is at odds with the design team, or when the play is at odds with itself, the results can be schizophrenic, if not disastrous. In “Family Values,” at North Coast Rep, the mismatch is external; in Black Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Iago,” the problems are internal.
Up at North Coast, we’re not seeing one play but two, maybe three. “Family Values” is a world premiere, and that’s a coup for the theatre. Playwright Marvin Pletzke has been compared to the late, great British dramatist Joe Orton, and rightly so. Orton’s dark, campy, sharp-witted comedies of the sixties, like “Loot” and “What the Butler Saw,” caused scandals when they were first produced. Like those plays, “Family Values” makes mincemeat of blood relations and bloodshed. It has a certain edginess, an off-beat humor, and it requires a very precise, cheeky, tongue-in-cheek production. And that’s just what the technical team has come up with.
Set designer Marty Burnett has used as his logo and springboard a happy family photo plunked into a circle with a line through it. That don’t-go-there image is accompanied by all manner of danger symbols, like black and yellow Caution stripes, and a whirling radioactivity warning. His spartan, imagistic home is angular, garish and thoroughly whimsical. A perfect match for the tone and palette of the play, and for the primary-colored lighting and retro sound design. There’s only one problem.
Olive Blakistone has directed a different play entirely. She’s playing this totally straight, like some O’Neill family drama. It’s a gross misconception. There are some spot-on moments of wry, sly delivery from Pat DiMeo and Robert Larsen as the smoking, drinking, helpless, co-dependent parents of a haplessly murderous retarded son that John Guth makes both humorous and horrific. And Larry Corodemus is just the kind of cop Joe Orton would’ve loved. But it seems obvious that the actors and the tech team are at odds with the director, who’s clearly at odds with the playwright. This theatre family is as dysfunctional as the one it portrays.
Now, when compared to the Crayola colors of “Family Values,” “Iago” is all black and white. C. Bernard Jackson came up with a fascinating concept, recreating the story of Othello and Iago, perhaps Shakespeare’s most vilified villain, from the standpoint of the Evil One’s wife, Emilia. First, it should be said that this play was written in 1979, and it takes a sledgehammer approach to its Black nationalist themes. The idea here is that Iago was a Moor just like Othello, and longed to get back to Africa. The real villain is the effete Venetian racist, Michael Cassio, who lusts after Othello’s young white bride, Desdemona, and is a lousy, drunken irresponsible soldier to boot. Here, he really may be having a thing with the General’s wife, and poor Iago, faithful to his leader to the end, got blamed for inciting jealousy and murder.
It’s a great idea. Unfortunately, Jackson’s conceit is to frame the whole thing as an insipid classroom exercise, where the audience is the student body and the professor gets into the re-enactment act. This makes for two separate plays, clumsily connected by a whirling, conjuring ceremony that brings us back in time to the 15th century. Jackson should’ve just stuck with re-casting the story. Director Patrick Stewart made inventive use of masks, so his cast of six could play multiple roles, but it wasn’t clear why they kept switching characters. Alas, many lines were lost on the night I was there, an awful shame with Shakespeare, since many speeches are borrowed from the Bard. Walter Murray, Mimi Francis and Scott Johnson do the best they can with what they’re given, but overall, the cast isn’t up to the demands of the material, and the play isn’t up to its creator’s concept.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.