BWW Reviews: Playhouse on Park's Presents a Contemporary OTHELLO
OTHELLO - THE MOOR OF VENICE
Theatre: Playhouse on Park
Location: 244 Park Street, West Hartford, CT
Production: By William Shakespeare; Directed by Sasha Bratt; Scenic Design by Christopher Hoyt; Lighting Design by Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Design by Erin Kacmarcik; Sound Design by Ryan Kelly. Through October 20; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $20 to $32.50, visit www.playhouseonpark.org.
Playhouse on Park's spartan and urgent production of Shakespeare's Othello opens with a rather brutal scene that instantly communicates that this is not your daddy's Shakespeare. Iago is suspended by chains from the ceiling. After a few moments of blasting punk metal and interrogation, his bruised body is released, lowered to the floor, restrained and waterboarded. Clearly, director Sasha Bratt is drawing parallels between Venice/Cyprus circa 1600 and contemporary U.S.military/foreign policy. To highlight this inspiration, the playbill cites the setting as "an all too familiar world of constant war."
This setting is an interesting choice, but ultimately superfluous. Why? Because Othello is not really a play about military conflict or foreign policy. To be sure, it is a backdrop to the action, but the tragedy of the Moor of Venice is ultimately a tale of thwarted ambition, revenge, love and jealousy. At this point in time, Shakespeare's plays have been shoe-horned into almost every conceivable milieu. The reason they stand the test of time is not due to directorial conceit, but due to the timelessness of the stories at the core of each play.
Mr. Bratt's director's note in the program states that this production's jumping off point is that, well, Iago might just be misunderstood. What if Iago is not a pure villain as previously interpreted? What if he was indeed "honest Iago," as all the characters reminds us, but has soured due to circumstance? The waterboarding/torture scene has been interpolated into the script to make us understand that maybe, just maybe, Iago has some justification for his behaviors. It is a testament to the strength of the Bard's storytelling that this approach falls away as the action proceeds. Iago is, in fact, a terrible person who does terrible things and meets a terrible fate. Once you, as a Playhouse on Park audience member, dismiss the alternate philosophy and the seemingly topical setting, you are left with a mostly solid production of Othello.
Of course, any production of this tragedy rises and falls with its leads. As the title character, R.J. Foster delivers a strong performance. In the early going, it is hard to see why Foster's Othello has leapt the ranks to become the foremost military general in Venice. This feat is all the more impressive when you realize his race would seem to be a major hindrance. Othello needs to possess a hypnotic sense of leadership and a swagger that will win over not only the civic leaders, but also his bride Desdemona. Foster hits the appropriate militaristic postures, but falls shy of being a rock star. His second act transformation, as Iago's manipulations begin to chip away at Othello's psyche, finds the actor more successfully firing on all cylinders and holding the audience breathless.
Tom Coiner's Iago proves to be more than a worthy foil for Foster. Blessed with a booming voice and a sly stage presence, Coiner inhabits the role pretty much as Shakespeare intended. Despite the stated intentions in the program, Coiner creates an Iago that is a truly hissable villain. The only significant drawback, and this is also an issue with the production's Cassio (portrayed by a similarly fine Aidan Eastwood-Patricchio) is an over-reliance on gesticulation when speaking. Almost every (spread arms) line (indicate a line with your hands) is punctuated (point your finger) with a hand gesture (jazz hands!). This serves to distract rather than enhance what Shakespeare is trying to say. Trust the language and the audience will follow.
Celine Held's Desdemona is sweet, sympathetic and tragic, as the script demands. It is easy to see why Othello would be smitten with her (although due to her hairstyle it is not always easy to see Miss Held's face). Desdemona's costuming by Erin Kacmarcik does not fit the director's chosen milieu as Miss Held is made to walk through a Middle Eastern base camp in a cocktail dress and heels. The most exceptional performance in the production is Jennifer Polansky's Emilia. In possession of a terrific facility with the text and an unimpeded sense of character, Polansky tears into the role of Iago's wife. In some ways, Emilia is the trickiest role in the piece as she must abet her husband's machinations, but rail against their tragic conclusions. Polansky nails it.