Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
July 4, 2014
Racism, misogyny and random acts of evil. Shakespeare packed a lot of still-relevant social hot-buttons into “Othello.”
Every production of the play has everything to do with artistic choices. Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein has opted to move the setting to the early 19th century. All well and good politically, but the scenic design looks like some futuristic geometry of moving walls crafted from aluminum foil.
The four central characters determine the audience response to the play. Here, the women, though powerless in their society, are steely and smart. Kristen Connolly’s Desdemona is no wilting victim. Angela Reed, as Emilia, wife of the diabolical Iago, spurns her husband to become the potent, truth-telling centerpiece of the tragic ending.
And then there’s the pas de deux between Othello and Iago. As the Moor, Blair Underwood has adopted an odd Caribbean-flavored accent that gets in the way of his speeches – just as his Rasta dreadlocks get tangled in his face. But the impassioned leader’s devolution, from swaggering warrior to delighted lover to green-eyed murderer, is superbly calibrated and truly gut-wrenching.
Still, all the action pivots on Iago, whose motivations have been the stuff of endless discussion and debate. Richard Thomas has chosen to play him as a sociopath, probably the least nuanced and interesting of the options. Pure evil isn’t that engaging; we crave complexity. This Iago is a manipulative sicko, and that’s a flat take.
The costumes are attractive, the original music and live percussion heighten the energy and drama. The language is presented with impressive precision, so the poetry and musicality of the text, as well as its sense and consequence, come through with extreme clarity.
The statements made about blacks, women, honesty, loyalty and trustworthiness will certainly raise the hackles of the socially sensitive. But when, at the end, Iago vows never to speak again, our fascination doesn’t pique. As twisted as this Iago is, he probably wouldn’t have much that’s rational or sensible to say anyway.
“OTHELLO” runs through July 27 outdoors on the Old Globe’s Festival Stage in Balboa Park.
©2014 PAT LAUNER