Othello (July 2-18, 2010)

“Othello” moves to New York via Olympia Little Theatre

The Olympian/The News Tribune, July 9, 2010

Community theater companies seem to love updating Shakespeare to modern times.  Sometimes it works; more often than not it doesn’t. Of all Shakespeare plays, “Othello” may be the one most likely to work in a modern setting. In Theater Artists Olympia’s most recent outing, the modern setting adds to the dramatic impact.

The upsides to setting “Othello” in New York in 1968 are that inner city gangsters in the sixties offer dramatic intensity that modern audiences can relate to more readily than they can to Cyprus in the 16th century, and the play’s themes of racism, sexism, jealousy, war and honor are issues that seem to work almost effortlessly as they were hot button topics in the late sixties. Video clips projected on a back wall between scenes highlight such issues with pictures illustrating the women’s movement, the war in Vietnam, Civil Rights protests, lynchings, the death of Robert Kennedy, and speeches by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

On the down side, some of the language and speech patterns are obviously out of whack when put in such a modern context, for example, talk of war in Venice and Turkey doesn’t fit with the Vietnam background.

Director Robert McConkey has assembled an outstanding cast. Major roles include Mark Peterson as Othello, Luke Amundson as Iago, Christina Collins as Emilia, Brian Jansen as Roderigo, Erica Penn as Desdemona, and Paul Purvine as Cassio.

Plum roles in “Othello” are played by Peterson and Amundson, both of whom are more well known to Tacoma audiences. Magisterial in demeanor, with a powerful voice, Peterson is ideally cast as Othello the Moor. Throughout much of the play his booming voice and the character’s oversized emotions are held in check, personifying – especially in the first act – the voice of reason, which makes his explosive violence and passion in the second act even more convincing.

Amundson’s portrayal of Iago is much more complex and layered. Iago is sneaky and manipulative. He presents himself to Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo as compassionate and trustworthy; they all refer to him as honest, yet he is the most devious character in the play. The subtle ways in which Amundson changes from the persona he presents to others to the sly and evil self he presents in soliloquies when alone on stage is masterful.

Roderigo is an easily manipulated fool. Played by a lesser actor he would seem little but a foil to Iago, but Jansen’s strange body movements and intense expressions make him into a much more charismatic character. His hypnotic comic appeal reminds me of Jack Nicholson’s breakout performance as the tagalong biker in “Easy Rider.”

Both Penn and Collins are believable as the major female characters, both of whom express great inner strength subsumed beneath the expected female subservience of the time – and (spoiler) they both die beautifully and convincingly. The third female, Stella Martin as Bianca, sets the tone of the updated time and place beautifully with her New York accent.

The set by McConkey and Marko Bujeaud is particularly effective. It is simple but striking, setting the mood and allowing for easy and almost seamless scene changes.

This is a powerful, well acted dramatic play that should fill the seats every night.

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