Sunday, June 29, 2014

Treat Yourself to Riverside's Othello

Kelly Gibson, Tim Budd, Daver Morrison
By James E. Trainor III
Photo by Bob Goodfellow

There's no pleasure quite so simple and magical as sitting in the park by the river on a lovely summer night, where a cool breeze cuts the heat and the sun slowly recedes to reveal a beautiful night sky. Such a night in the park would be refreshing enough without a company of skilled actors performing an Elizabethan bedtime story for the crowd. This weekend, the beautiful language of Shakespeare's Othello combined with a beautiful night to make magic happen, reminding one why we still do outdoor Shakespeare after all these years. Sometimes, when the company does its work and the stars are aligned, art and nature coincide, and magic happens. Such is the case with this production, due partly to the incredible piece of literature that is the text, but owing no small sum to Theodore Swetz's focused directorial eye and Tim Budd's captivating performance as Iago.

The play, as Shakespeare's other "great tragedies," has a very ritualistic feel, and this production brings that out brilliantly. The story itself is deceptively simple: an ambitious but thwarted ensign, Iago, plots revenge on his general (Othello, played by Daver Morrison), by manipulating circumstances to make it appear that Othello's wife, Desdemona (Kelly Gibson), is sleeping with his lieutenant Cassio (Steven Marzolf). This little revenge play becomes so much more with Shakespeare's artistic touches however, and much of that revolves around the character of Iago. In Iago, Shakespeare raises the silly old stock character of the Vice (the devil in medieval morality plays who gets to talk to the audience) to a high art: we see the living embodiment of duplicity and destruction in Iago's soliloquies, and in between we get to see him manipulate everyone in Cyprus to perform in his plot against Othello. There's a perverse sort of fun in watching these proceedings; like any good devil, he tempts us to be on his side.

Swetz does not shy away from the suggestion that Iago is channeling the capital-D Devil but embraces it fully, without camp and with a reverence for the form. Such wonderfully demonic lines, for example, as "Divinity of hell!/When devils will the blackest sins put on/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows/As I do now" are punctuated by Budd slowly making a circle on the stage with his sword, suggesting some ancient dark ritual that adds an ominous texture to Iago's double life on stage. Likewise Othello's desperate "All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven/'Tis gone/Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!" is performed earnestly under the stars as some sort of cosmic bargain. In the context of this masterful text and a summer night with magic in the air, these words and actions are imbued with all the power Shakespeare intended. Even clever rhetorical tricks like Shakespeare's sledgehammer irony (constantly calling Iago "honest," having Othello's exaggerated poetry as in "my life upon her faith" come back to haunt him), carry a special weight, adding to the suspense of the plot and feeding into the moral themes of the show.

Tim Budd's performance in this production is simply exquisite. A seasoned actor (this show marks his 50th with Riverside Theatre), he brings all his experience and creativity to bear in creating this very challenging character. Iago must be an expert actor himself, playing each character in a very specific way, and Budd does this extremely well. With Roderigo (played by Christopher Peltier) he is an exasperated mentor, with Desdemona a caring protector, with Othello a cautious and insightful adviser. It's great to see him in the crowd scenes; the intense attention and subtle nuances of Budd's group work allow us to see Iago's schemes as they're being devised, improvised, and applied. This is only part of the job, however; as the play's de facto narrator, Iago has a very special relationship with the audience. When the others leave the stage and he is free to be himself we see the pure joy he takes in causing all this chaos. Budd luxuriates in Iago's evil, almost dancing with maniacal glee as his plans come to fruition. It's always rewarding to see Budd play a Shakespearean villain because they're so well-rounded; he creates a believable and nuanced person and then pursues a scheme with a vicious primal energy. Othello marks the epitome of this process; in Iago we see a very clear and believable person, bitter at the world but committed to mastering his baser impulses in order to seek a grand revenge, and we see the deeper, darker suggestion of the Great Deceiver, as it were, underneath.

The other principals are excellent as well. Daver Morrison's Othello has a somber weight to him; he is very believable as a great speaker, a brave warrior, and an effective leader. The contrast in his character work is particularly effective; he is so calm, measured, and controlled at the beginning that we get to see the fall of Othello very clearly, when he rolls on the floor seizing and blurting about handkerchiefs, we know that Iago has succeeded and what is left is a disintegrated man. Kelly Gibson's Desdemona is a joy to watch; she brightens up the stage with her early entrances, and when she prods Othello about Cassio it is not as a nag but as a playful, loving wife, happy simply to be conversing with her beloved no matter what the subject matter. Desdemona is smart, sexy, and powerful, and she knows it. It is this confidence and charm that makes it all the more tragic when first her spirit and then her life are snuffed out by Othello's unleashed rage. Morrison and Gibson work fabulously on stage together; there's a wild physicality to their interactions but there's also the simple pure happiness of newlyweds who can't get enough of each other. When it all falls apart, both actors are intensely engaged, and the murder sequence (fight direction by Jason Tipsword) is executed with energy and artistry.

While the company itself is very solid, there are a couple scenes where the acting could use a little nuance. The beginning sequence (when Iago and Roderigo inform Brabantio, played by Ron Clark, of his daughter's marriage) and the end sequence (where Emilia, played by Jody Hovland, finally figures out Iago's plot and exposes it despite his threats) feel a bit out of tune with the rest of the score. There's a lot of shouting and screaming in both of these scenes, which makes sense given the extreme emotional stakes, but the trouble with this is that turmoil must be sustained for quite a few lines, and for this reviewer, it didn't ring true. The intense anger, grief and confusion are probably a fitting counterpoint to Iago's careful scheming, but the execution of Brabantio and Emilia's explosions could have used more ups and downs. As is, these two scenes feel like bookends of bluster. Not that they do much that harm the overall feel of the show as an emotional experience, but I did found myself stepping out of it for a few brief moments.

Othello is a wonderful production, and if you've never treated yourself to the lovely time that is outdoor Shakespeare, there's no time like the present. This is a masterpiece of a script, brought to life by an insightful director and very committed actors. Othello runs in repertory with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] through July 13; more information here.

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