at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Othello by William Shakespeare
Words, words, words! Othello (Peter Macon, pictured left) and Iago (Dan Donohue, pictured right) made me feel like they each had too many of those damn multisyllabic chores to get through before they were allowed to go offstage and do something else.
There was one wordy speech after another. You know the kind: they're loaded with big rhyming Shakespeare words. Good-for-you and opaque.
Othello starts off on full-tilt loud ranting pitch which Macon maintains for nearly every scene and utterance. Donohue is quieter, more controlled, and clearer. But, he is also always talking through a mouth full of dusty Elizabethan words. Additionally, Donohue's voice quavers annoyingly when he's trying to communicate intensity. Dan, retire the vibrato!
At two hours fifty minutes Othello was more of an endurance trial for both actors and audience. They spoke, we listened and tried to give meaning to the syllables. The powerful story of jealousy, betrayal, and tragic love appeared repeatedly, but only briefly.
The night was spent with Macon and Donohue declaiming in mostly separate spaces. The common factor was that each of them had been told to walk off stage before completing the last sentence and to seem amazed at how many words they had to say.
Vilma Silva as Iago's wife Emilia broke free of the blank verse prison which unaccountably captured the other actors. I understood Emilia, her predicament, her relationship with her husband, and her reactions. By looks and measured speech, she told me a story.
Danforth Comins as Othello's lieutenant Cassio also had clarity and purpose. It wasn't a huge part, but at least I understood what he was about.
Other performances were generally very talented, but in acted out in isolation. Sarah Rutan (Desdemona), Robert Vincent Frank (Duke of Venice), and Jonathan Haugen (First Senator) were excellent. Tony "Blustering" DeBruno (Desdemona's father and then uncle) and Christopher "Goofy" DeVal (Roderigo) were below par, reprising/phoning in their parts recycled from other OSF plays. Others were at least serviceable.
Based on their other works, it's clear that the cast is more talented than the result of their collective effort. How did it happen that acting talent was present, but there was no powerful story?
Director Lisa Peterson showed no vision for Othello. She let Othello, Iago, and Desdemona pretty much wander on their own. They had their parts, but didn't connect. The supporting crafts work was similarly independent and off-putting.
The worst choice for crafts mood setting was the work of "Composer & Sound Designer" Paul James Prendergast. Each act and several scenes were introduced by eerie Sci-Fi wails which were dead ringers for those in the TV series Battlestar Galactia. If you're a BSG fan, you'll think the next scene will be a flashback to Caprica before the Cylons attacked. It's the same brooding recorder sound. It's a powerful spooky sound, but doesn't work as all-purpose bumper music for Othello.
Designer Christopher Acebo's costumes were timeless... in the sense that they didn't belong in any known period in history. What would you call Iago's garb? An Elizabethan leather car coat? Would a general wear the striped black and brown leather thing given to Othello? Why were they wearing those things? The other characters had more traditional quasi-Elizabethan dress, but the waists were unnaturally high, most colors were drab cream, and the whole wardrobe was distracting. If I had felt that the costumes were part of a grand design, maybe they would be stunning. But, in this production they felt like isolated cloth art.
Scenic designer Rachel Hauck presented a blank slab stage with a drain (for blood?) running up and down its center. A couple times a bed or other prop would appear in the middle. Why so minimal?
So when the actors, the set designer, the costume designer, and the music guy all go off and do their own disjointed thing, what do we fault? Another disappointing job by another director who had not previously worked in Ashland. Artistic Director Bill Rauch simply needs to work more closely with the younger talents he selects or else hire directors who are already skilled in regional repertory theater.