nytheatre.com review by Andre Lancaster
June 4, 2010
Othello is a daunting play to mount—written by the most recognized playwright in the West and loaded with racial controversies that 400 years after its writing still have very real familiarity to them. That said, the production of Othello put up by Oberon Theatre Ensemble at the Kirk Theatre overall is a poetic staging with splendid, artful designs—albeit with a few spotty performances.
Othello tells a tragic story involving a rich African royal named Othello (Daniel Morgan Shelley) who, like the rest of us colored peoples of the world, falls victim to a little old character named Whiteness (Iago, played by Stewart Walker), and then subsequently and unfortunately to the true loved ones around him, including his white wife Desdemona (Jennifer Blood), catches the-black-man-in-a-position-of-power-syndrome (think Robert Mugabe or O.J. Simpson). Distrust, vengeance, and tragedy ensue.
Cara Reichel's direction is smart and fast-paced, particularly the specificity and timing of when exactly Othello's words held center stage and when they remained off-center—artful choices not overlooked by these eyes. Shelley's Othello also had specificity that reflected the particular truths of this particular and unfortunate black male syndrome. I did however—call me a drama queen—want more emotional range in the final scene from Shelley. Other standouts include Randy Howk's Roderigo, Jessica Angleskhan's Emilia, and Chris Seiler's Brabantio. But Stewart Walker's Iago and casting choices like the slight female sailor played by Jane Cortney never quite did it for me—which is not to say a female sailor could not last in the high seas. I just never believed Cortney's could.
The production has an artful lighting design by Isabella F. Byrd which includes repeated foreground/background color themes on the sinister Iago, and a magnificent, shifting set (Ann Bartek) primarily made of ropes that were always engaging to journey with through the course of the play and that transform the space from the very real-feeling Venetian court to the imaginary inner obstacles that torment Othello right before intermission. The Vivaldi/djembe sounds (Whitney Kam Lee/Rene "Cucusun" Reyes) at times highlight the poetic rhythms that are just above and below the surface, though other times I felt they took too much of a backseat when they could have in fact taken center stage.
As a modern day black man, this production raised these questions for me: what's in the foreground/background of White Thought (we're on to you!) What arguments for equality and access are actually commonly shared and which only seem to be? And why do my fellow black men—rich and poor—choose craziness and paranoia over simply asking for support in times of crisis?
All in all, Othello at Oberon Theatre Ensemble is a good and intelligent production. Get thee to the theatre.