Thursday, April 14, 2011

Othello in Eureka

This is a very slightly extended version of my North Coast Journal review.  There are a number of other posts on this site about Othello, especially the film versions.  They don't cover the most recent, called "O," which I haven't seen.  There's also a review of the previous David Hamilton/Jabari Morgan collaboration on this play. (Clicking this link will start you out with this review again--just move on down the page for the rest.)

For those seeing their first production of Shakespeare’s Othello, North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka provides stylish and vivid entertainment as well as impressive individual moments and plenty of food for thought. But there are reasons that people return to this play (and other classics) even when they know the story of Othello the Moor, General of the army of Venice, and his trusted aide Iago, who leads Othello relentlessly into a fatal jealous rage.

With the same Shakespeare text, a different combination of actors and other theatre artists make their production unique, providing the audience with opportunity for different impressions and insights. That’s true at NCRT even though the director (David Hamilton) and lead actor (Jabari Morgan as Othello) collaborated on the last local Othello, at the Arcata Playhouse in 2007.

For example, Iago’s unwitting co-conspirator Roderigo is sometimes portrayed as completely clueless, but Victor Howard plays him as passionate, not entirely trusting Iago but willing to believe what is to his advantage. Ethan Edmonds gives Cassio substance and a reality that justifies him as Othello’s lieutenant. As Emilia (Iago’s wife and confidant of Desdemona, Othello’s young wife,) Megan Johnson releases suppressed and imposing power.

But the most telling portrayal is by Calder Johnson in an impressive performance, who plays Iago not as a capering fiend or bitter conniver but as mostly calm and deliberate (with only a few strangled moments of self-betrayal), worriedly helping everyone get what they want, while manipulating every willing victim to serve his evil ends: pretty much the model of a modern major psychopath.  

Jabari Morgan is compelling and masterful as Othello, raising the game of everyone around him. Claudia Johani Guerrero is a lovely Desdemona, the still center of these crazed storms. JM Wilkerson gets the play off to a confident start with his authoritative Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. David Hamilton’s mostly solid and at times provocative direction, Pat Hamilton’s sumptuous costumes together with Daniel Lawrence’s somber and elegant set as well as Gabriel Groom’s sound and music and Bridget Barsotti’s lighting, all combine with these stellar performances for an accomplished production of high quality.

Audiences can also see this play differently in the changing context of the times. Racist anger directed at a black General plays differently when we have a black President. But whether on first or repeated view, theatre has been powerful for so many centuries because people learn something about themselves there, as individuals and societies. Drama and other literatures don’t always depict tragic consequences of ungoverned passions and weaknesses just to confirm they are human nature. The act of consciously portraying them suggests consciousness as itself a vital part of human nature as well.

Everyone in Othello is prey to passions, even the coldly calculating Iago. (As Robert Heilman notes, "Of the insights that create Iago, none is deeper than the recognition that a cool rationality may itself bring about or serve the irrational.") But the tragedy in this play results from the characters’ decisions. The thought may occur of applications beyond this story: becoming conscious of our powerful unconscious and how it works is essential to the human future.

Othello is at NCRT weekends through April 30.

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