Friday, July 9, 2010

Othello: "I am not what I am"

Last night I went to see Othello at the Olympia Little Theatre. A few days ago I was wandering around in downtown Olympia with my fellow NODA intern and suite mate, Jamie, and we saw a poster for Othello. I asked if she wanted to go and she said yes, and I figured out the details. We decided a Thursday night might be fun.

So last night after work I plugged the theatre's address into my GPS and it took us into the middle of suburbia. In fact I was SURE I'd put in the wrong address (something I've only done once, shhhh) until we pulled in the theatre's parking lot. And yes it was a theatre in the middle of a suburban street, surrounded by houses. But one inside it was unquestionably a little theatre, but a very charming one.

The theatre itself was very small holding maybe 150 people in total. And including us, there were only about 15 people in the audience. In fact, the cast may have been bigger than the audience. And that's a shame. Because this was a wonderful production of Othello. This is the kind of production that proves you don't need a lot of money, or even a big fancy theatre to put on a show.

I've read Othello three times in my life, all for different classes during undergrad. I also saw a production of it when I was in London, at the Globe Theater. Sadly this might have been the worst Shakespeare show I saw while abroad. We had standing tickets for the "authentic experience," the show ran more than 4 hours. On top of that it was a preview performance and Iago had to keep calling for his lines. So by the time we got the final scene, I was ready for Othello to just kill Desdemona already so we could go home. Which is not the regular reaction to Othello, I think.

But happily this production was a huge improvement over that one. Which proves something important, good (and bad) theatre can happen anywhere. As soon as we walked in to the theatre, I knew I would be happy on at least one point: the set was very simple. It was literally a blank stage, with black rehearsal blocks in the middle, and the audience on 3/4ths and a brick wall and stairs leading off stage way upstage. But more importantly, they used the simple set and the whole stage well. I don't really have anything against elaborate sets, but think that you need a reason to have one.

I think fundamentally Othello is one of Shakespeare's most interesting plays. The character of Iago, (played well) is fascinating. Iago literally spends the play manipulating everyone for his own purposes. And while manipulators are hardly uncommon in Shakespeare (hello, Lady Macbeth)Iago schemes based on barely articulated, transient reasons. The two articulated reasons for his actions are that Iago is jealous that Othello has promoted Cassio above him and that he thinks Othello has slept with his wife, Emelia. Yet, in terms of his rhetoric, Iago never really tries to convince the audience that he believes either of these things. So then, why is Iago bent on ruining Othello's life? Its never clear, and it makes Iago all the more dangerous and sinister. Iago himself tells the audience in the first scene "I am not what I am." So what are we supposed to make of him? Why this deliberate subterfuge? I think part of the art of the play is this ambiguity. Untimely there is evil in the world, and evil that cannot be understood or evaluated is the scariest kind. Iago tells us straightly that he is not to be believed, and this paints the whole play in a sort of uncertainty.

Iago is a challenging role, and as I've seen before, not every actor is up to this challenge. And if your Iago is a bust, good luck getting any traction with any of the rest of the story. But all of the acting here was good from Othello to Iago, to their wives Emilia and Desdemona to Cassio. A Iago was especially good at playing to the audience, and kept making eye contact with me, to the point that I was distinctly uncomfortable at being brought into the confidence of this lunatic.

The language of Othello is not exactly subtle and about half way through, I caught myself wondering how many more way Shakespeare could possibly come up with to equate whiteness with virtue and blackness with evil. However, sadly this piece of Othello is still relevant. The production capitalized on this by setting their production in the US in the 1930's, where a mixed race marriage was hardly more accepted than it was back when Shakespeare wrote it. However, I think that sometimes this imagery, begun in the language, and then reflected back through the costumes and the set boarded on heavy handed. However, I think that a little bit of melodrama is not out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy. But I also thing that it can be scaled back when you are playing to a house of no more than 150, not the rafters in the Globe Theater.

I mentioned already that I liked the set, and this production took advantage of the brick wall and projected videos onto it before the start of the show and in between scenes. A lot of the footage was used to set the scene with images of race in America during this era. However, they also used footage of Martin Luther King Jr. at the beginning of the show, and Malcolm X at the end. I thought this was a very interesting choice, as it associated Othello with these two very different black leaders. The transition from the rhetoric of Dr. King to that of Malcolm X set up Othello's journey form a loving man, to a man so possessed by hate and anger that he thinks killing his wife is his only choice.

The ending of the show was when all the pieces came together. All of the actors had a very good understanding of how to speak verse, and it sounded natural. So natural, that in places I had to wonder "is that REALLY the line?" as sometimes Shakespeare can sound almost alarmingly modern. This is a good sign though, as you want verse to sound normal and accessible. Overall this was a great production and I really enjoyed it. I think that ultimately Othello as a show is thought provoking and tragic. I went home wishing that I had more than about an hour to think about it before I had to head for bed.


The MoM said...

Thank you. I wish I was in Olympia so I could have enjoyed this production with you.

Kate said...

You always write such good reviews. I wish I could have seen this (which happens pretty much whenever you write a review)