Saturday, May 09, 2015

Seattle Shake's "Othello" is an imperfect but solid production

Cast of Othello (John Ulman)
Othello
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through May 17, 2015


The current production of Othello by Seattle Shakespeare Company is a combination of aspects that work excellently and some that don't quite. Director John Langs adds some beautiful atmospherics, like starting the whole production with an imagined wedding ceremony between the fair Desdemona (Hillary Clemens) and the Moor Othello (Sean Phillips). 

The presentation is 20th Century garb, but not quite up-to-date and not quite a specific time period. So, it's modern enough to include guns, of which there are none, but too modern to include swords, of which there are plenty. It might have made more sense to use short, decorative swords for dress uniforms, instead. 



The dialogue is delivered in American accents, but then some actors, particularly when they are rushed, don't articulate enough to make themselves understood. Then again, Sean Phillips uses an extremely distinct accent, as though he's in a different production. Indeed, he has performed as Othello before, and maybe some of the other productions' styles have crept in. At least, in that regard, everything he says is clearly heard. Phillips is not local, though he's performed here before. It's a pleasure to see him on our stage, again. 

Clemens portrays Desdemona in part as a very young teen, but then does not quite portray the teen enough, so her performance is not quite formal and not quite informal. Her high-pitched vocal quality in this role doesn't suit her character. 

As Desdemona realizes that something has gone terribly wrong in her marriage, there are many ways to play the last scenes before her death: she realizes she will probably die and determines to go with dignity, she thinks she can change his mind, she is so confused about what has set him off that it's all she can think about. In this production, the attitude is not clear, and the audience is less likely to be as on her side as perhaps they should be. Her enthusiasm and love for Othello in the beginning, however, is entrancing. 

Darragh Keenan plays the villain Iago. He is an excellent actor and shows his talent well in this role. However, a key element for Iago is the discovery of elements he can add to his revenge on Othello. Iago is supposed to be quick-witted and nimble enough to have something happen that he didn't plan and then fold that into his plan to make it better. Discovery and 'watching Iago think' are part of the enjoyment of the unfolding plot (even if what you're watching unfold is clearly evil). Here, Keenan plays Iago as if he already knows what to do at every moment. 

Another element added is a projection of Othello's imagination. As Othello gets jealous of the idea of Desdemona in another man's arms (planted by Iago), he imagines and we see the visuals projected onto parts of the set. This is an interesting atmospheric, but then draws attention away from Othello's speaking, which undercuts the actor. 

The main story of the play is clear and well-represented in this production. A subplot with the hapless Rodrigo (Trick Danneker) works for comedic effect, as Shakespeare liked to do within even his darkest tragedies, but feels slight in this production and not well integrated, though Danneker is perfect casting for the role. 

If you have never seen Othello, this is a good solid production to see. You'll enjoy interesting visuals and a solid cast. Although I've made some critical remarks, much of the above commentary has to do with knowing a play pretty well, and having some established expectations about it. 

Coming up, don't forget that we're just a couple of months away from free Shakespeare in the Parks. Wooden O, Seattle Shakespeare Company's summer park show production company, will be doing As You Like It and Henry IV! 

For more information, go to www.seattleshakespeare.org or call 206-733-8222.