Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ashland: A Good, Straightforward Othello

We're back at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland for some more theater. I've complained before that Ashland seems to get spooked by its eponymous poet, apparently not willing to trust the verse to carry the play and insisting, instead, to clutter things up with irrelevant stage business (see, e.g., link). For this season, I'm happy to report that we are off on the right foot: a no-tricks Othello. This is a particularly welcome success for two extra reasons. One, Othello seems to be a particularly hard play to get right. It probably has something to do with the race background, but you've got to have apprehensions about a play that led to embarrassments like this one by Olivier and this one with Branagh (Ashland itself turned in an equally awkward entry a few years back with an a Moor who seemed to think he was an eye-popping silent movie clown). The other problem is the play itself: not doubt that it is a masterpiece of character, staging and verse, but it can be almost unbearably hard to take, particularly in the second half which turns into a kind of extended bullfight, with Iago as toreador and Othello as the bull.

There are other important characters in this play but I can't think of any one that depends so much on just two, and perhaps in particular Iago the villain who must (I haven't checked) have more lines than the Moor. So a lot of the credit for success here goes to Dan Donohue, who turns in a compulsively watchable performance in the villain's role. Not a surprise, really: a while back, Donohue turned in what might be the best performance we ever saw here, as Price Hal (Henry V) in Henry IV/V. Taking all in all, Donohue seems to be able to get his mouth round a Shakespearean line better than anybody else in the company. His Iago was suitably villainous, but in a way that I found new: I've never seen a Iago before so obviously looney, so much like the kind of guy who would take his dish of liver with a nice Chianti.

As Iago, Donohue was good all round but perhaps at his best in ensemble with Peter Macon as Othello: together they danced, wrestled, jousted and did almost everything a twosome could do on stage without the assistance of main drainage, making the whole thing an exercise in choreography. Macon full partner in the dance, though perhaps not quite Donohue's equal as a solo. Macon seemed to understand his character--brave, passionate, isolated, prickly-proud. In voice he got the tone right, although he didn't seem to handle individual passages so well.

As Desdemona, Sarah Rutan is another one who seems to understand her character, but she seemed just a bit miscast: Rutan was earnest and devoted like Desdemona, but I think of Desdemona as more dutiful, dependent and bewildered than she came across here: Rutan is a bit too tall, too not-young, too instinctively feisty for the role of a doomed ingeniue.

All this talk about "understanding the character" and "ensemble" suggests a powerful driving force--the director. I know next to nothing about directing per se, but everything about this suggets a strong and assured directorial hand. The possessor would be Lisan Peterson who, I see by the program, is new this year: perhaps Ashland is at last on its way to putting that old afraid-of-Shakespeare stuff into the rear view mirror.

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