BWW Review: Taffety Punk & Riot Grrrls' THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO Offers a Brilliant, Bare-Bones Bard
First, a critic's note: in Greece today-where, you may recall, this whole theatre thing got started-they don't distinguish between male and female talent. The word for 'actor' is simply ethopoios (ee-tho-pee-yos), and that's all you need to signify a highly-trained performing artist who assumes any and all roles. The artist is an artist; 'nuff said.
This production of Shakespeare's Othello has revelations galore, performed by an ensemble of actors whose comfort with the language and emotional power keep you riveted. Even if you've seen any number of Othello's before-especially if you've seen a few-the Riot Grrrls interpretation, as staged in the spartan Capitol Hill Arts Workshop space, gives vivid life to characters and speeches that usually get lost in the cavernous main stages across town.
The tragedy of Othello, of course, traces a famous general's descent into jealous madness and murder prompted by a cynical, and cynically jealous brother-at-arms. When performed by a small crew of actors, in addition to the story you get the spectacle of artists performing a wide variety of personae. The intimacy of the black-box frees the cast to explore a variety of roles-the supporting cast here is dynamite-and with that freedom comes a joy that is infectious.
Director Kelsey Mesa creates a free-wheeling atmosphere from the top, as the cast assembles onstage to show some of the various backstage rituals actors do before curtain-a few pushups here, vocal warmups there, etc. It's a reminder that for all actors, assuming a role involves a series of adjustments in physique, demeanor, voice, hair, etc., to suggest a different persona. Costume changes occur onstage in full view of the audience, and Marcus Kyd's bare stage requires little more than a step-ladder, costume and coat rack to set the scene. Even the stage violence is a combination of realistic (swordplay choreographed by cast member Teresa Spencer) and symbolic; the element of surprise dominates here, and keeps you on your toes as an audience.
Lise Bruneau's Iago is gruff and sleazy, decked out in costumer Elizabeth Haley Morton's dungarees and boots; the humor and menace are palpable, and contrast with the initial steely calm of Danielle A. Drakes' Othello. Drakes' Othello exhibits a slow and steady descent into jealousy, anger and panic. Their partnership, central to the action, is complemented brilliantly by turns like Tonya Beckman's turns as Brabantio (Desdemona's furious father) and Emilia. One minute she's the stuck-up Senator, fuming at the loss of a daughter to an African officer, the next she's the earthy, level-headed wife of a junior officer, teaching her boss Desdemona the ways of the world.
The role of Desdemona is always a challenge; a spoiled daughter of the upper class, utterly clueless to the ways of the world, there seems to be nowhere for her to go but down; Julie Weir, however, not only tackles the innocence of this young woman but-with a suit jacket, horn-rim glasses and hilarious paste-on moustache-transitions in the blink of an eye to play Roderigo, Desdemona's hapless suitor and the tragic butt of Iago's jokes. As with Beckman, the fun here is to know that the actor covers such contrasting, and diametrically opposed, roles with ease. Meanwhile, Teresa Spencer's turn as Cassio-the object of Iago's professional jealousy-affords her a wonderful quiet moment; when Cassio is deliberately made drunk, with the inevitable violent results, Spencer nails Cassio's desperation and regret at the loss of his good name.
Ida Prosky, whose name might ring a bell among Washington theatre folk, once wrote a dissertation about the struggles of female artists, entitled "You Don't Need Four Women to Play Shakespeare." How times have changed; today, thanks to Riot Grrrls, you can say with assurance, you need as many women as you can find, to get Shakespeare right.
Othello plays through October 12 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, D.C. All tickets are $15 each; call 1-800-838-3006 or visit: http://www.taffetypunk.com/.