The Guthrie Theatre production of Othello is a prized gem of a show, literally sparkling with many facets. While going the full measure, a weighty 3+ hours in length, one is nevertheless propelled forward into the well-turned chaos of one of Shakespeare's most pointed commentaries on the human animal without a single leaden pause or interpretive misstep.
Othello is a Moorish General, victor of many campaigns, who takes Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian nobleman as his wife, much to her father's dismay. Only his success in battle assuages his superiors and they endorse his newfound happiness, then dampen it by sending him on another campaign, Desdemona in tow. Meanwhile, his aide Iago plots against him, for various grievances, from a denial of promotion to an imagined tryst with his wife, Emilia. Thick with themes of race, marriage, politics, faith, trust and evil, the story sounds every dark note of human emotion and ends with a tragic chord indeed.
The players move through the piece with an obvious respect for the Shakespearean tradition, irrespective of the period change. Lester Purry's Othello is at first artfully restrained, even in his passion for his new wife, then turns thunderously tormented by the shock of his aide Iago's treachery and his own terrible guilt. I would have liked an Othello a few years older, to bolster issues of age difference referenced in the script, but the caliber of the performance won me over. Iago is delivered unto the audience by Bill McCallum, almost as a character from the professional wrestling circuit, with all his bluster and complaining. He is childishly gleeful at the unfolding of his intrigues, not really a dark and machiavellian rendition, but nevertheless effective, and more so for this "modern" setting. Cheyenne Casebier's Desdemona is a pearl, effervescent throughout, turned to a wretched, barely coherent shadow at the end. Her utter innocence, desperate confusion, and finally, shrill terror are completely dispatched to every corner of the theatre, making her the surprise focus of our later attentions. A special notice to Virginia S. Burke as Emilia, who makes her contributions in every scene with great care then rises to a fiery finish when turning over the rock that is her husband Iago's facade of forthrightness, revealing to all the snake beneath.
Patrick Clark's set is both impressive and economical, doors flip open, gates glide shut, actors enter each scene through rustic stucco arches and airy shuttered foyers. Here a drawing room, there a soldiers quarters. A setting both easy on the eyes and easily transformed. Someone asked me "How will they move it?". Don't know, don't want to. As long as they take it on the road with them.
The production has been updated to the mid 1800's. I think. I'm a reviewer, not a historian. Apparently a double threat, Mr. Clark's costumes crackle with style and taste. No extra ruffles or fans, just the garb that suits performers sure of their craft, from sharply turned out uniforms-right down to the suspenders and undershirts- to richly becoming frocks and evening clothes. It's a pleasure to watch a play where the set and costumes compliment and support the actors so well.
Joe Dowling's direction is efficient, almost by the book, sometimes seeming with an eye on the clock. One has to appreciate being offered the full meal by this efficient cook; his actors compel us to attend, and they waste no motion or pregnant pause not needed. One wonders though, if the song is required (yes, folks, there's a song) and if the dialogue that follows between Desdemona and Emilia couldn't have filled the same space. Certainly Cheyenne Casebier's lovely voice is a treat, but there's already many in this polished production.
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