Casey Moulton, Travis Stolp, Xavier Bieuel, and soldiers in Othello.
Photo-UofL Theatre Dept.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel R. Hill
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
In Daniel R. Hill’s director’s notes, he reminds us, perhaps too obviously, of Othello’s “…themes of power, greed, racism, and manipulation,” and his production is certainly a fairly traditional take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Yet, it is most interesting for the subtle overturning of expectations.
The tale of Iago’s treachery in teasing out the “green-eyed snake” in his commander, Othello, is one of the Bard’s most straightforward plots. This cutting streamlines the story effectively, although the climax maintains its challenging length and burdensome exposition. More importantly, there is an emphasis on the humor that is too-often soft pedaled in the tragedies. Bekah Aebersold is a memorable clown, and Candice Handy’s hilariously trashy Bianca seems a tad overdone in its conception at first, but the performance achieves a fine balance that serves the character and exemplifies what works so well here.
Travis Stolp’s performance as Iago is softer and less diabolical than is typical for one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, but he is funny without sacrificing the character’s drive. By contrast, Shaleen Cholera is a darker, edgier Othello than we usually encounter. Megan Kubac is a fine, if slightly underdeveloped Desdemona, while Megg Ward does strong work as Emilia, proving crucial to that extended final scene. Casey Moulton does well by Cassio, although perhaps he sacrifices complexity for stolidity, but that makes sense, all things considered. The secret weapon of the cast might have been Crystian Wiltshire, who made Roderigo a multi-faceted highlight: understatedly funny when skulking out of the wings in disguise in a preposterous beard, and fully tragic when he falls prey to Iago’s betrayal.
During the first act there was a general resistance to energy that may have just been opening night jitters, because after intermission the production woke up and got down to business. An air of menace made itself known and there were several riveting passages as Iago’s machinations yield their deadly results.
The modern dress worked pretty well, with a mix of black military uniforms and business attire for the men and diaphanous gowns for Ophelia in Zhanna Goldenful’s costumes. The bi-level set design by Michelle Gentry served the skulking around and eavesdropping with sturdy, classical style. The atmospheric and foreboding electronic music playing before and after each act was effective, and I would have welcomed a bit more of it in the scenes themselves, but I won’t fault the discretion.
Hill’s rendition of Othello deemphasizes the racism and isolation within society that is inherent in the common practice of casting an African-American in the title role. By using a mixed-race group of actors, he necessarily shifts focus to personality conflicts and reduces the concept of The Other to the background. I am not aware of Mr. Cholera’s exact racial identity, but his looks suggest a Middle-Eastern background, a perhaps even more provocative and timely racial and cultural distinction and one that is more accurate to the text anyway, but the production doesn’t overtly exploit the heady notion of Othello being a Muslim in a Christian society. In the first scenes, Brabantio’s outrage in learning of his daughter, Desdemona’s, marriage to the Moor is less an expression of bigotry and more the normal reaction of any protective father.
I suppose it dilutes the play’s impact some, but it also shines a spotlight on the director’s challenge in producing Othello in traditional terms. A modern-day presentation that surrounds a dark-skinned central figure with an otherwise exclusively white cast may no longer be realistic, both as a reflection of current society and as a measure of the available casting pool, especially within the enrollment of a university theatre department. Mr. Hill sticks to the text and avoids overly fancy business, letting his worthwhile cast execute the story in a straightforward manner that makes this Othello a winning production.
Wed Feb 4th – Sunday Feb 8th @ The Louisville Playhouse.
8pm nightly with an additional 3pm matinee on Sunday the 8th.
Tickets are $15 for the public, $12 for students, alumni, employees, and seniors.
University of Louisville Dept. of Theatre
The Louisville Playhouse
Louisville, KY 40202
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at the Louisville Visual Art Association during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]