Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

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

Monday, June 27, 2011

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "Othello" is "a wonderfully vivid and lively experience."

— Good productions should, at the very least, make an audience understand why a play is great. That Shakespeare’s Othello is a great play is beyond question, but the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival production, which opened at the Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway on Saturday, makes the tragedy a wonderfully vivid and lively experience.

It is helped in great measure in this by the performance of David Alford as Iago. Alford, who also happens to be the director, is electric in his malevolence and guile.

With his shaved head and dressed in camouflage, he is utterly believable as a soldier of second rank who can charm at parties (even performing a rap of Shakespeare’s surprisingly suitable verses) while putting together the pieces of his plan and sowing the seeds of doubt for poor Othello (Derrick Parker).

Alford transports this Othello to the modern Middle East, and this kind of setting-shift can be fraught with danger, often drawing unintended conclusions or simply distracting from the play itself. But the impressive set design by Chet Longley - a blasted place with ominous ruins and sandbagged fortresses - and incisive sound design by Matt Choirini make for an ideal setting where love can so easily and so quickly turn sour.

The wild, drunken party where Casio (an excellent Chris Crawford) loses his reputation is expertly staged. After it is done, you understand that this debauchery is part of the bargain in a war-torn land where soldiers are going to blow off steam after battle.

As Othello, Parker makes a convincing case for being a leader only too ready to be led to the madness that is jealousy. Parker, who sometimes speaks too softly in his first scenes, is especially effective in the second act when clutching at his head as if trying to rid himself of the thoughts Iago has planted there.

Paige Reynolds’ Desdemona is a touching figure, a soul who is completely unaware of the darkness that is enveloping her new husband. Likewise Emilia (Heather Dupree), who unwittingly helps her husband, Iago, set the trap for Othello. Adam Mincks as Roderigo has many nice moments where his displays of ignorance come in comic form.

But this Othello pivots on Iago, and Alford makes him so real and alive, you are on the edge of your seat at the end wanting a full explanation for his vile deeds. Shakespeare leaves that question hanging, not unlike a piece of tantalizing but bitter fruit. That the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival makes that question plain is but one measure of its success.

Othello continues as part of the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival through Sunday. Call (501) 450-3265.

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