Slow start, but big finish in SSC “Othello”
It’s cold on these foggy summer nights in the Festival Glen up at UC Santa Cruz. But don’t worry: the action heats up to stunning conclusion in “Othello,” the third production of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 29th summer season. It does take a while for director Pam McKinnon’s modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s tragedy of love, race and jealousy to catch fire; the intensity of the second half, including McKinnon’s gutsy staging of the finale, far outshines the slower-moving first half with all its exposition. But a few impressive key performances—most notably Corey Jones’ majestic Othello—keep the audience intrigued throughout.
As a play, “Othello” is similar to “Macbeth” in being almost completely uncluttered by subplots. All the action is focused on the main story of “the Moor,” Othello (Jones), a celebrated black general in service to the Duke of Venice, and his aide and confidante, the white officer Iago (Victor Talmadge), who so envies the Moor’s victories in war as well as in love that he plots to destroy him. Setting up this premise, introducing the characters, and unspooling the diabolical twists and turns of Iago’s schemes—which he explains in great detail to the audience—occupies the first half of the drama.
The play opens with the scandalous news that Othello, recently returned from a triumphant campaign, has run off with the daughter of white Venetian nobleman, Brabantio (Mike Ryan). But when Othello appears to answer the charges, he announces that he and Brabantio’s daughter, Desdemona (a vivid and spirited Dana Green) are lawfully married. Even though her father suspects witchcraft and disowns her, Desdemona and Othello are happily and deeply in love.
This is bad news for her rejected would-be suitor Roderigo (the comically adept Adam O’Byrne), who has been trying to woo her with gifts and gems sent via Iago (most of which Iago has kept). But Iago cautions Roderigo not to give up his suit, and plots to undermine the Moor’s success by dividing him from his bride. Why? Othello has promoted a younger man, Cassio (an earnest, dynamic Richard Prioleau), to be his lieutenant above the veteran Iago, who smarts from the snub (he calls Cassio an “arithmetician” who “never set a squadron in the field”). But beyond this slight, the embittered Iago resents the happiness of others; his only pleasure in life is his own capacity for evil.
When the action moves to Cyprus, after another successful campaign against the Turks, Iago sets his plan in motion. Like a spider at his web, he collects useful information—Cassio can’t hold his liquor and dares not drink; Othello has given Desdemona a love token, a handkerchief, which in his mind symbolizes her love and fidelity—from which to weave his scenario of deception. As Othello’s trusted aide, Iago begins his own campaign made up of lies and circumstantial evidence to convince Othello that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio.
Unlike “Macbeth,” however, there are no exotic witches cackling over their cauldron, nor any viraginous wives driven mad by their own guilt to help the story along, and this production could use a little more oomph to get us through the talky opening scenes. Michael Ganio’s outdoor set—wooden walls, mesh gates, a couple of catwalks—is perfectly functional but not very exciting. Nor is there much to look at in B. Modern’s contemporary military garb: Navy whites for Othello and Cassio, a plain khaki uniform for Iago, suit jackets for the ensemble. However, her gowns for Desdemona, each reflecting the mood of its scene, are beautifully done, and Modern creates one spectacular robe for Othello in his boudoir in the finale.
The play hits the ground running with a lot of exposition up front (mostly lengthy speeches by Iago) setting up the story before the audience knows who anybody is. It might have been useful for McKinnon to employ a cinematic trick—say, Othello handing Cassio his promotion, spotlighted on a balcony—to illustrate the text and show at least partial cause for Iago’s villainy.
But Iago’s villainy is another element that just eludes this production. To corrupt an affection as great as Othello’s for his bride, Iago must be an oozing an oil slick of menace whose perversity is so seductive, his victims lose all reason and cannot help but be swayed by him. (Either that, or his groundless insinuations must trigger some deep-seated self-doubt in Othello himself, which this production does not hint at.) But Talmadge’s Iago, while biting and sarcastic, seems more petty and peevish than persuasive. It’s hard to believe Othello would be so easily convinced by him. Maybe it’s the drab outfit, but this Iago never musters the sinister power to drive a man to murder.
But Marion Adler is terrific as Emilia, Iago’s feisty wife, and Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting (despite her matching khaki WAC dress; my charming companion thought she looked like a Brownie). Adler adds sauce to the production, whether firing moral outrage at all the men, or sharing a touching scene with Green’s wistful Desdemona, preparing her mistress for bed while Green sings the haunting “Willow” song.
Which brings us at last to that electrifying boudoir finale. McKinnon places the fateful bed on an apron downstage, in the very lap of the audience (not discreetly upstage and comfortably distant); there’s nowhere to hide from the relentless emotional and physical intensity of these final scenes. The actors pull off this audacious piece of stagecraft with great feeling, concluding this “Othello” on a searing high note.
SSC’s Othello plays in repertory through Aug. 29 in the Festival Glen, UCSC. Tickets: $14-$47. For more info, visit shakespearesantacruz.org or call the UCSC ticket office at 459-2159.