Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Richmond Times-Dispatch: "Minimalist 'Othello,' robust emotions

Minimalist 'Othello,' robust emotions
Shakespeare Theatre offers unusual pick in Acts of Faith Festival

Richmond Times-Dispatch
Feb 4, 2006
By Susan Haubenstock

Ever heard of a five-actor, 90-minute "Othello"? This is a high school student's dream: Lose the minor characters, lose lots of verbiage and pare the Shakespeare tragedy down to its essential elements.

But this is an "Othello" for any Shakespeare lover, because those elements are thrown into high relief with this kind of minimalist production.

Richmond Shakespeare Theatre's current production at Second Presbyterian Church follows the company's practice of using just a few actors in multiple roles, with minimal scenery and costumes (and, in this case, no special lighting), to bring us the emotional meat of the play.

It's a peculiar choice for the company's contribution to the Acts of Faith Festival. There's not much God apparent in "Othello." The story of the Moorish general -- secretly hated by his ensign, Iago, and deceived by Iago into murderous jealousy of his young wife, Desdemona -- includes few exhortations to heaven.

There is much to ponder in the character of Iago, a consciously evil man who identifies with Satan, and there is considerable talk of faith and faithlessness among humans, but little apparent spirituality to link the play to most of the other Acts of Faith Festival offerings.

The usual explanations of Othello's credulous behavior are psychological: He lacks self-confidence, he's touchy about injuries to his pride, he's too quick to believe Iago's lies about Desdemona's infidelity.

But here Master of Play (director) Andrew Hamm forges a link to the Old Testament concept of evil by having gifted actor Robin Pierce play Iago as an embodiment of Satan. He's the snake in the garden, sinuous, sharp-featured and hissing.

Pierce's wonderfully intense performance is the centerpiece of the production. He's constantly called "honest," and Othello believes Iago loves him, but Pierce whips off the mask of his glasses to show the true evil of his nature.

Pierce is well-supported by the rest of the ensemble. The reliable Cynde Liffick plays both Roderigo and Emilia, the latter with special poignancy. Ted Carter's Cassio brings a strong physical presence to the play, enhancing the notion that these are military men.

Dorothy Pawlowski is affecting as Desdemona, who has mistakenly put her faith in her husband. Though she prays to God, it seems she is abandoned. Pawlowski doubles as a whiny Bianca.

And as Othello, Thomas Nowlin gives us a convincing military officer whose self-doubt in his personal life leads to his downfall.

Master of Verse Freddy Kaufman has finely tuned the cast's diction so that the beauty of the language is fully realized, and we can reflect on the mistakes Othello makes in where he places his faith.


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