A traditional ‘Othello’ gets jealous at Woodward Park
Under new leadership, the resilient Woodward Shakespeare Festival kicks off a new era with a compelling season-opening production of “Othello.” This slow-burn exercise in the darker side of human nature — chock full of anger, envy, misogyny, insecurity, ruthless manipulation, problematic racial politics and, of course, the famed “green-eyed monster” of jealousy — is heavy stuff. I’ve always considered the play to be a major challenge both for a theater company and the audience. This production, which continues through July 7, has its uneven spots, but it also can be quite accomplished. Here’s a rundown:
The storyline: The play is one of the best known of Shakespeare’s works. The talented Othello (a commanding LaVon Jean-Pierre) is a Moorish prince in Venice. (The term “Moor” at the time was generally used to describe someone with dark skin, and the role is expected to be played by a person of color.) After eloping with the high-born Desdemona (Alexis Elisa Macedo), Othello is sent to command the Venetian army on the isle of Cyprus to defend against the invading Turks. Luckily for him, a storm destroys the Turkish fleet. Unluckily for him, his trusted lieutenant, Iago (Casey Ballard), hatches an elaborate scheme to make Othello think his wife is cheating on him. With nary a fact-checking bone in his body, Othello’s jealousy takes over.
My preconceived notions: Full disclosure here. I dislike “Othello.” I’ve seen it enough times to make that emphatic statement. The racial aspects and blatant discriminatory digs make me cringe. So does the way that women are treated. I find Iago’s relentless hatred tedious and even a little boring. Most of all, the title character’s gullibility is just hard for me to swallow. I know the play is a classic, etc., etc. But that’s how I feel.
Related story: In ‘Othello,’ 16th century lies and innuendo can seem a lot like 21st century social media
The setting and direction: With all that said, however, my personal prejudices were mitigated by director Arlene Schulman’s decision to opt for the original time period, in the latter part of the 16th century. Part of my problem with “Othello,” I realize, is that I ascribe modern-day standards to centuries-old characters. Understanding Othello’s treatment of Desdemona gets a little easier when you consider the time period. Another thing that elevates this production: Brooke Aiello’s handsome period costumes, which never let you forget the era in which these characters are living. Schulman keeps things moving briskly, although the text could have been tightened up. (At two and a half hours-plus, the production is a long outing for an outdoor venue; the first act is a prime candidate for shortening. Purists will scoff, but Verdi’s operatic version skips first-act Venice altogether and begins in Cyprus with Othello’s arrival. Just saying.)
The acting: Ballard is a standout as Iago. Her portrayal has a resigned and detached feel, as if Iago is fully aware of his weary, preordained march to tragedy, but there’s also something wryly twisted, almost twinkling, about Ballard’s stage presence. I’m mixed on Jean-Pierre as Othello. He can be compellingly brooding and full of rage, but I wanted to feel more from Othello as a charismatic leader and passionate lover. Macedo gives Desdemona a welcome, inherent sweetness, but I also missed a more steely resolve. James Anderson, as Cassio, has some very strong moments — when he wasn’t rushing. And Jessica Reedy, as the Duke, is stellar in a small but important role.
The diction: It was hard for me to understand some of the actors at times. Jean-Pierre has a pleasing timbre and deep resonance to his voice, but a consistent portion of his text was hard to decipher, at least to my ear. (Again, rushing was a concern.) I enjoyed much of Alex Serrano’s lively performance as the hapless Roderigo, but his diction also could be improved, particularly in moments of anger and excitement. On the other hand, Ballard, Macedo, Laura Dodds (as Desdemona’s attendant) and Dakota Simpson (in a number of smaller roles) were crisp and clear.
The insights: Even with the period setting, this “Othello” makes clear its modern-day implications. The lesson for those concerned about “fake news,” whether it’s about your favorite politician or cheating wife, is to scrutinize your sources and verify.
The takeaway: Overall, I’m impressed with the sturdiness of this outing. Woodward Shakespeare puts on a solid, well-prepared and thoughtful show. As the company begins a new era, there’s a lot of promise up there on stage.
“Othello,” 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through July 7, Woodward Shakespeare Festival Stage. Woodward Park. Free, but a $5 parking fee may apply.