August 6, 2008 (Matinee) performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Footnote to a masterpiece: Shakespeare’s Othello opened on July 25, and I, unavoidably, could not attend the press opening. Wanting my independence, I carefully avoided the reviews of others and conversations with those who had seen it.
I can now report that obviously it was, and is, a smashing success. For the matinee I attended at Shakespeare and Co.’s Founders’ Theatre, the house was packed to the second balconies.
The audience was mesmerized; even after what, of necessity, had to be a long first act,
(Othello is one of Shakespeare’s longest tragedies, out-stripped only by Hamlet and matched by King Lear) everyone was back for the final act which not only kept them in quiet awe but that ended in roar of applause that brought the entire audience to a standing ovation and repeated curtain call.
The current Othello now playing in repertory on the Founder’s stage through August 31 is the best production of tragedy that I have ever seen there.
Further, I would compare it favorably with productions at England’s Globe and Stratford’s Avon. (I recently had a Shakespeare intensive three-week summer course at Cambridge which included frequent trips to both stages, plus one Sunday morning of having the Globe stage to our group where we improvised scenes, for the benefit of tourists, trying to discover “where Desdemona’s bed had to be” in terms of sight lines, pillars, etc.)
The current production at the Founders’ has everything going for it. Nine of the cast of eleven actors, who play the seventeen roles, are Equity members; and with the exception of a couple of newcomers to the Company, most are veterans, some with as much as 22 years in residence. The talented director Tony Simotes has been a member since the start, 31 years ago. This is a brilliant team, working in harness and never missing a step.
The setting has been kept majestic but simple; scene changes are slight but effective.
Heading the cast are the two antagonists, Othello (John Douglas Thomas) and Iago
Thomas is heartbreaking in his quiet devotion to his young wife: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them.” and in his honest inability to sense such villainy as Iago possesses. But there is complexity in the character, a dark African belief in even witchcraft that can erupt and bring about the horrors of Desdemona’s death. His agony and his physical and vocal torment are awesome.
Hammond creates the most convincingly evil Iago one can imagine. He dominates the early half of the play in which he connives with his “motiveless malignity” to bring down the man who is so great. He is agile and vulgar, in body, face and voice. He is cruel for the sake of cruelty. This is the best performance he has ever given. And in his long years with the company that has been many.
Newcomer Merritt Janson, as Desdemona, is a surprise. As the young bride she is beautifully and appealingly a glowing expression of that innocent youngness. One wonders if she could possibly have the skills demanded of the later scenes of horror and awareness. Her innocent attempts to return Cassius to Othello’s favor are just that. Innocent. Awareness, but of what she is unsure, begins to come with the loss of the handkerchief. And by the time of the last grim scenes in her bedroom, she has grown into a maturity beyond her years. A splendid performance by a fine actress one hopes to see again on the Founders’ stage.
As Emilia, Kristin Wold provides an evolving character who at first connives with her scheming husband but who, when she understands his enormity, grows into fear, comforting of Desdemonia, and finally defiance and open repudiation of him.
LeRoy McClain’s Cassio is convincingly swept into Iago’s scheming web. One believes that he believes Iago, and is not himself as villainous. (His casting can raise questions. He mirrors Othello in racial casting. And conveniently understudies him.) In any other play (with cross-casting of all types now accepted and safely ignored in most plays) his race would not matter. In this production’s casting, to some it may provide motivation not present in Shakespeare’s original script.
Tom Rindge, new to the acting company, handles the role of Duke of Venice competently and performs eloquently in the sword-fighting for which he shares honors with his mentor (Simotes) the director and fight director of the play.
The supporting cast is studded with lesser roles or cameos by Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jonathan Croy, Michael F. Toomey, Walton Wilson, and Ryan Winkles, all handled with dexterity, including skillful doubling.
This is a production that deserves nothing but praise. The plot is chilling, the language is beautiful and the actors are suburb. Even if you can only get a seat in the highest balcony, see it. This Othello is one that will remain in your memory for a long time.