Friday, February 25, 2011

No Refund Theatre's "Othello"

Tonight 8pm, Tomorrow 2pm, 8pm
111 Forum
Of course, it's free

Last evening, I attended the open dress rehearsal for NRT's "Othello". My dear friend Katherine Leiden was starring as Desdemona and several other English class acquaintances  were on stage as well.

The experience was riveting.

Sure, the beginning was slow, but I chalk that up to Shakespeare getting too political about the Ottomans. "Othello", though, is a fantastic story line after that dullness gets worked out of its system. I was hooked the moment the marriage quarrel gets going. The story goes like this: the beautiful Desdemona elopes with the renowned "Moor" General Othello. This man is widely loved but intensely hated by one man: Iago. There is not a more despicable and disgusting character in Shakespeare. I mean, really, he's incredibly vulgar and a master manipulator. He manipulates every character in the play forcefully, smoothly. No one is out of his influence. He eventually gets what he deserves but not after the stage is piled high with deaths (Desdemona's death bed gets a little crowded).

Most of the audience, I assume, know this play. So saying lots of people die on stage isn't giving much away.

There was nothing more I wanted to do than to transport this production to a space like the Globe Theatre, where audiences actively responded to what was happening on stage with cheers, boos, tears, encouragement. There were several times I was thrashing in my seat because the plot had become so painful and frustrating to me. I called Iago a lot of names. When Othello started loosing it, I may have made obscene hand gestures in his direction. I was also as strongly moved the other direction. In the first scene that we observe Othello and Desdemona interact, their physical chemistry and affection delighted me that I sighed "Awww, they are so cute!" My friend beside me asked if the two actors were dating. "No, not them. Desdemona and Othello are cute!"

These were stellar student performances. I wasn't a huge fan of the setting change (20s America?) since it confused me at times (it took me awhile to figure out who Othello was when he came on stage. They have him as Irish instead of dark): the acting more than made up for it. Shakespeare isn't easy to act because it isn't easy to say. The intonations of voice change with the sentence structure. So, too, the body changes with the voice. This can be hard to embody but several characters did it superbly. Max Simone as Iago blew me away. Incredible. I was impressed that this Iago so smoothly transitioned voices and body language for each of his character moments, but maintained the same personality throughout. Casio was also a presence that lit up the stage, especially with his ease in speaking Shakespeare's English. His character isn't terribly complicated but was played so compellingly that I almost liked him more than anyone else.  I also may have resisted the urge to run to him when he got his leg slashed (Shakespeare character crush? Possibly.). Othello was also noteworthy, but mostly as he developed his character into madness. And Desdemona? Ah, she was magnificent! Strength and quietness is so hard to pull off without looking like a doormat. Katherine Leiden succeeded. I don't think I shall forget her voice as she sings before her death. I had never particularly liked that part in the play (characters breaking into strange and incomprehensible songs puts me off): last night, I cried.

It also qualifies as a worthy adaptation because it revealed Shakespeare to me in a way not accessible on the page. For example, Iago has a thing for Desdemona in this version: incredibly creepy and incredibly effective. One almost suspects that he destroys her and Othello because he wants her. Iago was compelling in fact because he played the character sexually, something I had never picked up on while reading. Vulgarity, yes. Attractive and vulgar and evil, no. Iago's wife (name slippage. Sorry!) had a tough part to play opposite him but their scenes went so well, and she brought more of an innocence to the character than I had imagined before.

In summary: just go see it. You won't regret it.

PS. Also a plus: great stage kisses. They were uncommonly delightful.

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