Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Tony Simotes, Shakespeare and Company 2008

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Merritt Janson as Desdemona and John Douglas Thompson as Othello, photo Kevin Sprague
Merritt Janson as Desdemona and John Douglas Thompson as Othello, photo Kevin Sprague

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tony Simotes
Shakespeare and Company, Founders’ Theatre
July 18 – August 31

Elizabeth Aspenlieder  –  Bianca
Jonathan Croy  –  Lodovico/Soldier
Michael Hammond  –  Iago
Merritt Janson  –  Desdemona
LeRoy McClain  –  Cassio
Tom Rindge  –  Duke of Venice/Soldier
John Douglas Thompson  –  Othello
Michael Toomey  –  Montano/Senator
Walton Wilson  –  Brabantio/Soldier
Ryan Winkles  –  Roderigo
Kristin Wold  –  Emilia

Othello stands out in an almost indefinable way among the tragedies of Shakespeare. It seems to take its entire color and fabric from the extravagant imagination, behavior, and language of its exotic hero. This conforms perfectly well to Shakespeare’s methods in Hamlet, Coriolanus, and Lear, for example, but Othello’s outlandishness (to use the original sense of the word as well as its more current metaphorical connotations) imparts his character and his language with an open-ended quality which effect us as pure color and emotivity—the famous musical quality of the play. If one plays the old reductive game in interpretation, the tragic situations of most of these heroes arise from their positions as outsiders. Lear is an outsider because he is old; Hamlet is an outsider because he is young; Coriolanus becomes an outsider because he is so intensely an insider; but Othello is an outsider quite simply because he is one. His military prowess—that is, his courage and his ability to lead men—give him value within Venetian society, as well as access to its highest circles, but no sooner does he violate the unspoken limits of his acceptance by his employers, than they attempt to correct the situation and eliminate Othello by accusing him of witchcraft—a classic strategy for disposing of unwanted neighbors.

Shakespeare and Company have done well in stressing that theme in the play and in their season, “conjuration and mighty magic,” and above all in allowing the theme unfold in Othello without cuts or dodges. All too often in Othello’s self-defense in Act I. sc. iii, his irony overshadows the full spirit of his reference to the black arts, as if he were ridiculing Brabantio’s superstition. This goes no further than forensic expedience, however; as the play continues it becomes clear that Othello is prone to superstition, and in the business of the strawberry handkerchief, it proves his undoing. Witch trials were familiar enough to Shakespeare and his audience as an archaic but by no means obsolete part of English society. Between the Venetians and the Moor the difference is one of character, not in belief or enlightened disbelief, although it is clearly one of his flaws.

So, Shakespeare and Company, both their publicity materials and in execution of this production, have chosen to emphasize a theme which is securely rooted in the culture of Shakespeare’s time, even more so under James than under Elizabeth. What a relief that Marx and Freud and Jonathan Miller’s Pinteresque manipulations have taken a holiday, not that I consider any of those authorities of little value. The current production of Othello was directed by Tony Simotes, who is best known as a director of fight and movement. (A founding member of Shakespeare and Company, he is currently director of the University Theater in Madison, Wisconsin.) To judge by the results this is a fine preparation for Othello—better, in fact, than the psychiatrist’s couch. This Othello got right down to business and kept a strong focus on Shakespeare’s action and rhetoric right up to the bloody end—all at the rapid pace generally considered to be the manner of Shakespeare’s time. As for All’s Well That Ends Well, the Founder’s Theatre was set up as a general replication of the period theater with its apron stage, simple, flat back wall with exit (this time sufficiently decorated with a row of Tuscan columns), and balcony. Costumes evoked the early nineteenth century, harmlessly, although pointlessly, enough. The circumstances could not have been more propitious for concentrating on the play without distraction, and Mr. Simotes and his cast managed it with skill, intelligence, and terrific energy.

From the very beginning Simotes cast were focused on the wicked flow of events set in motion by Iago, played with wit and elegance by Michael Hammond, who reminded me of the great Everett Sloane on occasion. As in All’s Well, as great deal of care was taken over diction and the rhythm and intelligibility of Shakespeare’s verse. The difference is that this is an all-American cast, and everyone spoke with his or her own intonation and accent—to which nobody should object. Everyone on the cast got on very well with this, although Merritt Janson playing Desdemona and Kristin Wold as Emilia showed some effortfulness in their first scenes. Kristin Wold, for example, following the driven rhythm of the action and her conception of her character as an angry woman who is not only suffering as the wife of Iago, but as a person with an offended moral sense, tended to blurt out certain lines as trochaic outbursts, which hammered over the complex sense and rhythm of Shakespeare’s verse. She soon overcame this, and her strong rhythm was just right for her final scenes, by which time she had it under control. In both these cases, I should mention that I am reporting on opening night. By now, these problems should have vanished.

Simotes and his cast’s ability to focus worked wonders in the whole episode of Cassio’s drunkenness. Here they created a sense of military life and its boozy evenings. Through pacing and interaction they evoked a vivid sense of the fabric of civil order coming apart amidst a routine night’s bash. This line of action reached a powerful climax in Cassio’s disgrace, and LeRoy McClain as Cassio brought out all the poignance of this basically decent and capable man trapped in the weakness of his own overeagerness to do please his masters and his neighbors. (Reputation and all that.) Throughout the play both he and Ryan Winkles as Roderigo offer strikingly well-rounded portrayals of characters who often appear bland or as caricatures. Iago’s whole dire manipulation of Roderigo transpires in painful detail, as does his work on Cassio, who is equally helpless in Iago’s hands. The entire action stews over the vulgarity, riotousness, and litigiousness of the opening scenes: these owed their power to top-notch ensemble work by the actors I have mentioned, Walton Wilson as Brabantio and Tom Rindge as the Duke of Venice. But in the midst of this Othello is brought in. John Douglas Thompson, an actor with considerable experience in Shakespeare and other classical theater, commanded our attention from the outset, when he is at his mildest. As the accomplished commander, happy in his fresh marriage, he can take control of his mock trial for witchcraft and persuade his judges, if not entirely win them over. Thompson’s Othello shows his nobility in his ability to be himself, even in foreign, hostile parts, and that—with a bit of charm and humor—is how he prevails in that first challenge…but Iago’s plot is already well advanced.

Thompson maintained impressive stamina through a portrayal which involved considerable physical expense and vocal control. As fast as the action moved he spoke the lines with a great range of nuance and color whether he was being tender to Desdemona, comradely with Iago, or angrily authoritative with Cassio. When Othello finally and gradually broke, he burst into a series of classic mad scenes, all modulated to his wrought and constantly changing progress to murder and suicide. I haven’t ever seen Othello played quite like that before, but it was entirely convincing and moving, and, I suspect, not unlike what London audiences saw in the early performances. Thompson’s voice is dark and powerful, and his delivery incisive—and also totally free of mannerisms of the sort we expect from, say, a Laurence Olivier. Thompson’s Othello was, like Cassio on a grander scale, a capable, fully realized human being, who is ruined as his weaknesses are played upon. His power and intelligence were truly amazing in the final scenes, which began in this production with Act IV, sc. iii, including Emilia’s angry speech about the state of wifehood within the arch. Here all were at their best. Wold’s energetic diction was just right, as was Janson’s vulnerable mien and voice. Against this, John Douglas Thompson played out an immense range of emotions, gesture, and voice in a wonderfully paced sequence—and, yes, I was deeply moved by it.

I have skipped over much of the middle of the play as well as the important part of Bianca, which was played with energy, color, and imagination by Elizabeth Aspenlieder. This loving attention to the details of the secondary roles, Bianca, Roderigo, et al. helped make this performance exceptional, as did Wold, McClain, Janson, Hammond, and their magnificent Othello, John Douglas Thompson. Rarely does one see one of Shakespeare’s major plays so consistently, honestly, and so satisfyingly performed.

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