Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Othello

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Othello

Article excerpt

Presented by the Guthrie Theater at the Guthrie Lab, Minneapolis, Minnesota. November 1-December 21, 2003. Directed by Joe Dowling. Set and costumes by Patrick Clark. Lighting by Matthew Reinert. Sound by Scott W. Edwards. Dramaturgy by Michael Lupu. Movement by Marcela Lorca. Fights by Peter Moore. With Lester Purry (Othello), Bill McCallum (Iago), Cheyenne Casebier (Desdemona), Virginia S. Burke (Emilia), Robert O. Berdahl (Cassio), Kris L. Nelson (Roderigo), Nathaniel Fuller (Brabantio), Peter Moore (Duke of Venice), and others.

Joe Dowling's production of Othello, which has been playing at the Guthrie Lab, the repertory's second stage, is touring the U.S. from Phoenix to Boston between January and April 2004 as part of the NEA's Shakespeare in American Communities. Given the NEA program's mandate to bring Shakespeare to small and mid-sized venues across the country, it's not surprising that the Guthrie Theater's artistic director has opted for accessibility. Dowling's critics attribute his success at attracting audiences to a less than daring directorial style; undoubtedly, they will find plenty of evidence in this Othello that he is again pandering to audiences. Unlike the high post-modernism of Liviu Ciulei in the early 1980s or the eclectic aestheticism and focus on company development of his immediate predecessor, Garland Wright, Dowling's approach seems decidedly unchallenging--aimed at subscribers, donors, and politicians who, even in a period of fiscal austerity, are financing the new theatre complex on the Mississippi riverfront. But at least Dowling has not reduced the Guthrie season to a mere string of crowd-pleasers like Harvey and Sylvia. Positive audience response to the Lab Othello very likely reflects Dowling's forte--moderately thoughtful entertainment for the general public.

This broad appeal is evident in many aspects of the production. My own students noted the most obvious: Lester Purry's Othello seems compelled in the first four acts to transfer to the stage Laurence Fishburne's characterization in Oliver Parker's popular film, right down to the robe Othello wears on Cyprus. Except for audience familiarity with Fishburne's portrayal of a sexually obsessed yet heroic figure, the reasons for this homage are not at all obvious. Though he strives for Fishburne's imposing presence, Purry is a smaller man and his strengths, which are subtler and more intimate, do not come into their own until act five, where the production emphasizes Othello's self-discovery. Purry's Othello is still struggling with "the cause" he has resolved upon; his growing doubts signal the turning of his moral conscience against himself. Since the stage version offers so much more of Shakespeare's text in the final scene than the film does, the actor and perhaps the director seem finally to emerge from the shadow of Fishburne's noble but misguided general.

Similarly, Bill McCallum's Iago seems designed to recall Branagh's snide intimacy. But he is much less sinister than Branagh and a good deal more fun, especially in the soliloquies. These are lit with spots and played far downstage; the audience greatly enjoys this intimacy with the Vice character, so effective given the small size of the venue. Sometimes standing, sometimes sitting or squatting, McCallum charms his auditors, so that as with so many productions of Othello, the villain overshadows the nominal hero of the tragedy.

But Dowling makes some intriguing choices that distinguish his Othello from the popular film version. The violent bedroom scene at the end notwithstanding, this Othello comes very near to being recast as a nineteenth-century parlor drama. The soldiers' uniforms, the women's bustles and dressing gowns, and the furnished interiors all recall the Victorian period. The Senate scene (1.3) takes place in what seems to be the Duke's private office, where he is sitting at a desk strewn with papers; the setting seems neither palatial nor public. …

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