Published in Gay and Lesbian Times July 11, 2002
The dark, accomplished Moor. His lily-white, virginal bride. And between them, “honest Iago.” There are plenty of controversial elements in Shakespeare’s original. But having all the roles played by females adds layers to the mix. The Women’s Repertory Theatre is tackling “Othello”.… and wrestling him to the ground. This isn’t high-concept Shakespeare, and the gender issues aren’t that prominent. And it’s not a drag on the Bard; the roles are all played straight. The script remains intact; you can read into it what you will. But any level of observation reveals a production that’s thoughtfully considered and excellently executed.
This “Othello” is giving women a chance to take a bite out of some juicy male roles. In many cases, this actually helps the audience more fully digest the story. The actors are dressed as men, and they play their roles exactly as written… and surprisingly well. Under the taut, sure directorial hand of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the language and plot are made crystal-clear. A 1960s setting informed the production, but it turns out to be generally unnoticeable or unobtrusive; you have to read in any roiling undertones of civil rights and women’s liberation. The corporate-military milieu works fine for the costumes, but the music choices are irritating. In general, the gender issues that might have been heightened in this creative conception take a back seat to the original tragedy of jealousy and revenge. There’s plenty of machismo and military hierarchy, subservience and susceptibility. But it transcends sexual identity. What makes Shakespeare’s works endure is their resilience, their resistance to endless interpretation and their inherent universality.
If the characters are clearly defined and the language is managed with aplomb, the tale is familiar enough to make anyone feel discomfort — a gnawing sense that even the most robust relationship, the most unshakeable trust, can be undermined.
In this production, the cast is uneven in the secondary roles, but potent at the top. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson makes a robust, be-medaled Moor, a gentle, rational soul until attacked by that green-eyed monster. As Cassio, his faithful but equally easily-duped lieutenant, Gina Alvarado is solid and steadfast. The females are formidable as well: Jo Glover a vigorous Desdemona. Wendy Waddell a forceful Emilia and Morgan Trant a credible courtesan. But in the end, it’s Gayle Feldman-Avery’s show. Her Iago is a sly schemer, a slick, oily manipulator who takes pleasure in his destructive acts and makes them seem if not reasonable, then somehow logical. He’s clearly convinced himself, and he does a good job on us, too. This Iago is by no means pure villain, and he’s utterly recognizable. Just the kind of soulless executive hotshot who’d make a mint wheeling and dealing while his underlings lose their life-savings. An Enron-Anderson sort of guy, you might say. It’s a chilling, thrilling performance, and it makes the play seem frighteningly contemporary.
This is a bare-bones production, simply designed. All the time and attention have been put where they belong — on the words and deeds… and that renders the result invincible and irresistible.
Happy 400th Birthday, Othello! You couldn’t be better celebrated.
[“Othello” runs thru July 20, at the Actor’s Asylum in the College area; 619-282-3277.]
“THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST”
It’s a Wilde ride. Commonly considered the master’s masterpiece. “The Importance of Being Earnest” has been hailed as Oscar Wilde’s comic tour de force, a brilliant slice of satire, mocking the wealthy and the clergy, both of whom richly deserved the derision, in 1895 as well as today. Unfortunately, its author was also skewered; that harrowing tale will be told at Diversionary Theatre later this year (in Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”). The colorful, eccentric Wilde was imprisoned for his homosexuality and a vision of art that outraged Victorian propriety. He served two years of hard labor, after which he was physically, spiritually and financially ruined. He died in despair in 1900, but his incandescent brilliance shines on.
The story of “Earnest” is too silly for words, with its scheming men and flighty, forgetful or tyrannical women. But its flawless wit and witticisms, not to mention its characters, cat-fights and catting around, make it timeless. In lampooning Victorian values, with all the attendant hypocrisy, shallow sentimentality and social facades, Wilde’s intelligent trifle carries the portentous message that no life can be lived in earnest — without due regard for nonsense. The piece is subtitled, “A trivial play for serious people,” and everyone in it is living under some pretense of earnestness, though nobody’s really fooling anyone else. Two foppish young men actually try to have the church sanction their Ernest-ness (being re-christened, to satisfy the name-preferences of their fiancées). But there’s simply no fooling about how seriously hilarious the North Coast Repertory Theatre production is.
Co-directors Rosina Reynolds and Sean Murray have brought their capacious combined talents to the daunting task with outstanding effect. The piece has the perfect tone — clever without being campy, funny without being ridiculous. And the cast is impeccable.
Jeffrey Jones does his best work as the cynically bemused, amoral and adorable Algernon, who idly spews some of Wilde’s best epigrammatic lines (most biting on the subject of marriage). As his aunt, the imperious Lady Bracknell, Annie Hinton is a hoot, with the chins of Robert Morley and the cadence of Margaret Thatcher. James Saba is hysterically prissy as Jack Worthing, a man who, having lost two parents, is accused of being careless. As Gwendolen, the object of his ardor, the earnest girl who wouldn’t dream of marrying anyone who wasn’t Ernest, Jessa Watson is both beautiful and uproarious, the perfect, fluttery foil for her arch-rival and best friend, Cecily, played with enchanting adolescent zeal by a lovely-looking Julie Jacobs. Don Loper makes two different servants unique and amusing, and Jim Chovick’s irreverent reverend is a great mate for Sandra Ellis-Troy’s priggish Miss Prism. Everyone is spectacularly attired in Shulamit Nelson’s luxuriant period costumes.
Portraits of Mr. Wilde, both youthful and dissipated, flank the suggestive, quickly transformed, interior/exterior, apple-green set, designed by co-director Sean Murray. The scenery will soon metamorphose even more, to accommodate “Travesties,” the quick-witted Tom Stoppard play that will run in repertory with “Earnest” through the summer. This double-dip is a rare treat, sure to satisfy any refined palate. Start with “Earnest” as a light appetizer, then dive into to a spicy second course of “Travesties,” which incorporates many of the same characters and lines. What a theatrical feast!
[“The Importance of Being Earnest” continues through September 8, in repertory with the “Travesties” (you can even see both plays in one day) at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach; 858-481-1055 or 888-776-NCRT.]
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.