BWW Reviews: OTHELLO Fights for Glory at Portland Center Stage
Shakespeare will be with us forever. He's already hung around for five hundred years, and somewhere in the world I guarantee you someone is performing one of his plays right now. Those of us who see a lot of plays end up seeing a lot of the Bard, and we all have our own opinions about how it should be done. My feeling is that whatever approach the director takes, it needs to be consistent and logical, and everyone on board the production has to be pointing in the same direction. (This applies to non-Shakespeare plays as well.) If the director wants to take liberties with the text, change the time or place, or add in other elements, that can work - as long as everyone involved works together to make the director's vision work.
Othello, to modern ears, is one of the most melodramatic of Shakespeare's dramas. It involves a villain (Iago) who wreaks havoc without much apparent motivation, a hero (Othello) who believes the villain's lies without evidence to support them, and a lot of coincidences that don't always make sense. I'm reminded of what film critic Roger Ebert used to call "The Idiot Plot" - the kind of story that would completely disappear if two characters just sat down and had a rational conversation. But Othello works on a different level; the characters are so passionate that their actions become melodramatic, and we follow them as they head for their inevitable doom.
Director Chris Coleman has assembled an impressive cast. Daver Morrison is an impressive Othello, his baritone growing deeper and more anguished as the play grows darker. Gavin Hoffman's Iago is wicked, yet he enjoys his nasty games and steps forward to confide in us how he's going to ruin everyone's life. Among the others, Dana Green's Emilia (Iago's wife) is particularly strong; she starts out as a witty commenter on the goings-on around her, but as Othello moves more and more toward madness, she becomes the voice of reason, and Green modulates her performance into one of true anguish. All the actors are skilled and talented, and this production features some of the best swordplay I've ever seen on stage.
Scott Fyfe's set is impressive - a huge castle that rotates to reveal the interior and exterior. Unfortunately its size reduces the playing area, particularly in the exterior scenes, but the actors and director manage to work around that. Susan E. Mickey has provided Italianate period costumes that are florid and gaudy, yet seem appropriate for the time and place. Randall Tico's music also works wonders at setting the mood.
However, there is one directorial choice that caused a problem for me, and I'd be curious to know why Coleman made this decision. As stated, Othello is a melodrama, and the Shakespearean language is intense and heightened. The set is impressive, the costumes are appropriate, and the play looks and sounds beautiful. But he has chosen to have the actors use standard American accents. Of course, Othello takes place in Italy and Cyprus, so an English accent is no more appropriate than any other, yet for some reason hearing these grand speeches performed in everyday American sounds renders them less passionate. When Iago is plotting his revenge, for example, telling the audience how he's going to ruin Othello's life, somehow it sounds less convincing in flat American tones. It feels too casual somehow, as if the lives of these royal characters were no more important than the goofballs on a sitcom. I don't blame the actors for this, since they all did it, and this was clearly a directorial choice. And mine may be a minority view. But somehow the grandeur was missing.