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Less vs. Moor 

Three strong performances can't save an Othello stripped of context

Wednesday, Aug 15 2001
I was ready to resent a cross-cast Othello, for the simple reason that San Francisco has enough good black actors and precious few strong black roles. Why hand this one to the pale Paul Santiago, even if he does look like a Moorish nobleman under the right combination of lights? But this show does away with most surface effects. It's a bare production on a basement stage, where Cyprus looks just as drab and garagelike as Venice (and has the same post in the middle of the scene to hold up the roof). ""Guerrilla Shakes' has not been interested in "bells and whistles,'" co-director Jeanne Samuelson explains in her program notes. "The human condition hasn't changed since the time Shakespeare wrote his plays."

No, but other details have. Othello's political context is long gone: The island of Cyprus no longer belongs to Venice; the white Christian world is no longer at war with the Muslims; Venice itself is no longer the symbol of democracy and sane government, as it was in the 1500s. Shakespeare used these surface details to show Othello, the rational Moor -- and Italian governor of Cyprus -- in his tragic arc from reason into benightedness, from happiness and self-government into jealousy, murder, and suicide, the last of which will bring down the bulwark of Italian democracy on Cyprus and leave it vulnerable to the Turk. Shakespeare's games with light and dark have a racial tang that makes modern people uncomfortable. But the games are there, so part of the director's job is to orchestrate them without being offensive and clarify them for an audience that considers Cyprus and Venice a couple of pricey Mediterranean resorts.

The crass way to solve this problem is to shift the setting. What if Othello lived in San Francisco, and had to govern Alcatraz? Or maybe Cyprus is some outpost of Western influence falling to communism (say, Hanoi)? When Samuelson and her co-director Michael Burg write about wanting to stage a no-bullshit Othello, they mean that such silly reinterpretations or political updates are out of the question. Good! I like stripped-down Shakespeare as much as anyone else. However, when you strip too much away from Othello you have only a play about jealousy; ignore the problem of political context, and the background echoes of passion and reason become a lot of heavy Shakespearean verbiage.

That's what happened here. Guerrilla's Othello relies on a few strong actors to carry the show, but without clear context they can only do so much. Othello's ardor for Desdemona and his unthinking trust are never in doubt; Paul Santiago has a muted, dusky vocal style that reminds me of John Malkovich, and his acting in the first half is measured and strong. He also looks like Malkovich, with the same smoldering broodiness in the lines of his meaty face. When Othello breaks down, Santiago's sonorous voice cracks and sounds incredulous; he seems to go convincingly crazy until you realize he's simply found an outraged monotone, and this new speech pattern mars his second-act performance (except for the final soliloquy). But he does good work overall, complemented nicely by Lauren Grace, who plays a delicate, naive Desdemona, with a light British accent (Grace is from England) and a beautiful singing voice.

The other solid performance is from Linda Ayres-Frederick as Desdemona's chaperone Emilia. The character needs to be subservient and discreet as well as coarse; around her husband Iago she's salty, and her advice about husbands is worldly and frank. ("They slack their duties, and pour our treasures into foreign laps. Let husbands know their wives have sense like them.") Ayres-Frederick masters most of this range. But these three performances -- with help from Paul Gerrior as the Duke -- aren't enough to electrify the bare basement room. Vincent Tycer's Iago seems charming and devious but never evil (his speech about jealousy "gnawing my inwards" is totally unconvincing), and David Abad's Roderigo is overblown. Aldo Pisano gives a muted, veiled performance as Cassio, and all the fight choreography (by John Skinner) needs help.

The main reason this Othello doesn't fly, though, is the weight of unexpressed language. We hear noblemen and senators of Venice go on at length about Cyprus and the Turks, and we watch Othello and his crew land on the island, which seems to be sunny (judging from a shift in the light); otherwise the directors leave details about politics and war for the audience to imagine. This is the risk with minimalism. Sometimes less really is less, like turning down the choir in order to hear the guitar.


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