Monday, June 30, 2008

Free Will, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival: "Othello".

Shakespeare’s Othello is one of his most problematic yet most fascinating and contemporarily relevant plays. Its theme of jealousy and betrayal based on a subtle undercurrent of racism is all too common today. Othello’s treatment of his wife, Desdemona, is blatantly abusive, as was common then and unfortunately today as well. Othello’s slow sinking into madness, murder and death is riveting, although sometimes all too much like watching a train wreck, we know what is happening and yet just have to watch. Desdemona has to be one of Shakespeare’s weakest women characters. You want to jump on stage and shake her as she naively pleads to her husband and tries to charm him even though he has nothing but her cold blooded murder on his mind. Something a Juliet, for example, would not stand for.

Othello’s jealousy over a dropped handkerchief can almost seem comical to the uninitiated. He virtually screams at Desdemona about the lost handkerchief; a mere piece of cloth that produces so much rage. One almost has to think “get over it man…Jeez”.

Thus it takes a strong cast and a strong production to make Othello work. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production did just that. Frankly, one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

Othello owes his downfall to his loyalty to his aide Iago. Skillfully portrayed by Bruce Roach, his Iago is a crafty manipulator, never a caricature, and thus a believable villain. He gets progressively more slinky and slimy as the night goes on, just as Iago gets more and more bold as he sees his plan to destroy the black moor come to fruition. Cassandra Schwanke is a sweet and dignified Desdemona who obviously loves Othello, yet shows little of the fire and spunk it must have taken for a refined and noble lady to marry an outsider, even one of a different race as she did. Schwanke’s noble performance and chemistry with Damon Gupton as Othello makes up for the weakness in the character.

And what about Gupton as Othello. “Riveting”, “electrifying”, “extraordinary”, “persuasive” are the words being used to describe his performance. From his first entrance to the final scene, one can tell that this is a true professional with a solid knowledge of the part and the play. Subtle glances, raging violence, ardent expressions of love; all handled with great skill and used to propel the play to its bleak conclusion. The rest of the cast was excellent in their parts, including John Wilson’s bewildered Cassio and Jan Rogge as a tragic yet noble Emilia, Desdemona’s servant and Iago’s wife, who sheds the light on the awful misunderstanding and treachery that claims them all.

Costumes spot on, simple yet versatile and effective sets, fine lighting and a wonderful outdoor setting was the icing on this delicious treat.

Shakespeare in the Park “Free Will” continues until July 6th except for July 4th. A must see.

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