Shakespeare in the Suburbs
Othello. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Markus. Starring Bernard K. Addison, Deanne Lorette, Chad Fisk, Charles Shaw Robinson, and Molly Mayock. Presented by the California Shakespeare Festival at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Exit off Highway 24, Orinda, through Aug. 1. Call (510) 548-9666.

The interesting thing about watching a tragedy at the Bruns Amphitheater -- the open-air Orinda stage on which the California (ne Berkeley) Shakespeare Festival has presented its productions for the past seven years -- is that the daylight follows the arc of the play. The shows start in late sunlight and end in the dark. This isn't worth noticing during a comedy -- last month the festival put on Moliere's Scapin, the Cheat! -- but it works well with Othello, especially since Shakespeare toys with the notion of black and white. His black Moor, rational and strong, gets tricked by a jealous white underling into thinking his wife has cheated on him. He sinks into irrationality, then agony, then death: the simple, classical undoing of a strong man. At least in outline the story has the proportions of Oedipus Rex, but in some circles this play would seem hopelessly dated, since the notion of irrationality as a curse is passe. "Benightedness," as an idea, has lost a lot of its force.

Iago, the mean-spirited underling, is jealousy personified; in that sense he's as important to the show as Othello. Charles Shaw Robinson plays him here with a lot of personality but not enough evil. I saw Robinson play Krogstad last year in Nora, so I know he can be evil, but somehow here he's just enjoyable. His voice has a pinched drone that should work better than it does. With some lines it sounds like real dastardliness, with others just like strain. His best moments come when Iago lies through his teeth. Othello, played by Bernard Addison, is balanced, commanding, and strong; but his early lines seem uninhabited, as if he's still warming up, and his most emotional moments are forced. The scene with the most ease and grace for both players comes in Act 3, after Iago has weaseled a promotion out of his boss. Not far into the third scene they're the only characters onstage, doing clerical work, and the way they interact has a tone of relaxed friendship undercut by an edgy suggestion of evil. The sky by this time is in deepening dusk.

The show lasts about three hours, and keeping up the pace for that long is more than the production can manage, but Desdemona's death scene wakes up most of the wine-sleepy audience because Molly Mayock, playing Iago's wife, screams so desperately about the ugly thing Othello has done and the horrible way her husband has led him to it. The falling cadences of the tragedy are brightened by Mayock's tantrum; it's the strongest moment of feeling, and maybe the only moment of truth, in an otherwise measured show about passion. "She loved thee, cruel Moor," she cries out, dying of a knife wound from Iago. "So come my soul to bliss as I speak true." Honest, electric hysteria, under a blackened suburban sky.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Radical Retread
AWD. At the Lab, 2948 16th St. (at Capp), July 16. Call 864-8855.

First were the dancers, who dove at each other, seemingly unconcerned with injury or collision. There was a man rubbing himself against the floorboards and exclaiming "Mom!" in several different tones, his voice cracking with adolescent excitement and embarrassment. There was a dreadlocked guy who made music for the dancers by banging out infectious percussive rhythms on a refrigerator that rolled across the stage on coasters. There was a woman suspended from a harness who uttered a strident monologue as she went flying out over viewers, who hadn't seen anything like it before and were both baffled and thrilled. This was back in 1987. The piece was called Oracle and the company was called Contraband.

Over 10 years later, the 12-member performance band AWD has staged a site-specific piece at the Lab, plotting its movement to take advantage of the venue's flaws as a performance space -- two poles in the middle of the stage floor, which one dancer scaled, monkeylike, and others took running jumps at, pushing themselves back into the air with their feet. There is a lot that is familiar about this show: Musicians bang on whatever makes noise, including wind chimes and giant oil drums, and dancers launch themselves from every vertical and horizontal surface they can find. Barrel and butterfly turns dominate the choreography, along with acrobatics, swooping dives, jackknife holds, and the dynamic rolling partnering particular to contact improv.

AWD works collaboratively, and the lack of dictatorial control has mixed results. At its best, the dancing and the raw rock score emit a kind of gonzo organic energy that dazzles viewers. Richard Szpigiel, dressed in a yellow jumpsuit with black racing stripes, storms the stage, barking out commands to the other dancers and hurtling himself into space. Janine Fondiller and her fellow fire handlers create a real sense of wonder as they trace yellow-blue arcs of kerosene flames through the darkened theater, lighting the tips of Freddy Krueger-ish nails on fire and swallowing the flames. But at its worst, AWD, like other performance groups, lacks humor and a clear sense of purpose. A deadly seriousness pervades the show, and pretension creeps into the songs and improvisational monologues. Impromptu "groove" dances look awkward.

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