BWW Reviews: Austin Shakespeare's OTHELLO Beautifully Designed and Acted
When Austin Shakespeare announced that their 2013-2014 season would feature a production of Othello, my immediate response was "Why?" After all, Austin's City Theatre produced the show just last season, and it was, as I mentioned in my review, "the highlight of the City Theatre's season."
Staging the same play in the same city just one year later is risky. Thank God Austin Shakespeare doesn't shy away from a risk. While the performances, direction, and overall look of their Othello is incredibly different from City Theatre's version from one year ago, it is just as effective and memorable, if not more.
The success of this production stems from the aesthetic choices of director Ann Ciccolella and her design team. While the setting is left a bit ambiguous, Lucie Cunningham's stunning costumes place the show somewhere in the 1800s, and Jason Amato's beautiful but abstract set of iron beams and large white sails evoke the idea of a ship. Between those clues and the use of English accents by many of the performers, it's easy to assume we're in South Africa during the British colonization of the 1800s. That framework fits Othello nicely. After all, Othello is about race. Countless critics and audience members believe that Iago's actions against Othello are fueled by racism. He resents that Othello, a Moor, is more powerful than himself. The 1800s South Africa setting greatly enhances the themes of race, especially when you consider how the British Imperialistic rule led to apartheid.
Ironically though, Michael Miller's portrayal of Iago somewhat ignores the issues of race, and while that creates a small disconnect with the setting, the motivations Miller finds for his character are arguably more compelling. As Iago, Michael Miller is not nearly as diabolically evil as many other actors play him, something that disappointed my companion but absolutely thrilled me. Miller plays Iago as a man who, in his mind, has been legitimately wronged by Othello and must manipulate the people around him to bring about justice. There are occasional moments, particularly in his soliloquies, where Miller allows Iago to show some anger and frustration, but he's never a hand-wringing villain. This Iago is a normal, kind-hearted, friendly person whose obsession with justice decays his morality and creates tragedy. That idea is far more interesting and dreadful than any villain could be.
Marc Pouhé's portrayal of Othello is equally impressive. Pouhé has a commanding presence which draws you in and demands attention. His voice seems tailor made for Shakespeare, and his descent from courageous and confident to enraged, wounded, and wildly angry is entirely believable. The ensemble cast surrounding Miller and Pouhé excels as well, particularly Johanna Whitmore as Iago's wife, Emilia, and Sara Cormier as the innocent Desdemona. The only exception is Alison Stebbins, who gives the character of Bianca a Transylvanian accent which is cringeworthy and ridiculously out of place.
Though chances are you may have seen a production of Othello before (perhaps even in the last year if you see productions at City Theatre), Austin Shakespeare's interpretation is well worth the ticket price. Between the aesthetically beautiful production and the two outstanding leads, you'd be hard pressed to find a better Othello.
Running time: Approximately 3 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
OTHELLO, produced by Austin Shakespeare, plays The Long Center at 701 W. Riverside Drive, Austin 78704, thru Sunday, March 2nd. Performances are Saturday 3/1 at 8pm and Sunday 3/2 at 3pm. Tickets are $19 - $38. For tickets and information, visit www.austinshakespeare.org.