It's Othello time. Two productions (a third, which capitalized on the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, has thankfully been canceled — see Aisle Seat) purport to give us two views of the tragedy: a straight interpretation of Shakespeare's text, in an effectively film noir-ish production by ACT (directed by Richard Seyd); and Play Desdemona, a contemporary work by Daniel Hintzsche (directed by Pam McDaniel), intended to illuminate the victim's point of view.
To recap the original story briefly, Othello, the noble Moor, is engaged to defend Venice against an expected invasion by the Turks. Though a mighty warrior, the general is socially naive, and wins Desdemona's heart with his stories of conquest. At curtain's rise, we learn that she has eloped with him. We also learn that Iago, Othello's trusted lieutenant, despises the Moor and has resolved to ruin him. While Iago gives his reasons — he has been passed over for promotion and also suspects Othello has had an affair with his wife — they seem almost like excuses. His single-minded hatred reads as an inextricable part of his character.
Seeing how Othello dotes on Desdemona, Iago recognizes her as key to the general's downfall. He therefore sets about to convince Othello that Desdemona is cheating with Cassio, the officer who was promoted in Iago's place. The problem dramatically is that he manages this intrigue virtually without effort. Othello is a hapless innocent, following Iago's suggestions with only the merest objection, eagerly embracing the notion that he must strangle Desdemona.
Plays in which the hero acts on limited information, while we in the audience are privy to all, always make me want to jump up and shout, “Stop! Don't do it!” We feel sorry for Othello initially but quickly become impatient because he is so ready to believe Iago's accusations against Desdemona. While this is fodder for feminist debate, to be sure, what troubles me is that it's intrinsically undramatic. Iago is in charge from the first moment. He understands human nature and understands the foibles of the noble character. To paraphrase the brilliant Charles Ludlam (late founder of the Ridiculous Theatre Company), a comic character thrives by his vices while a tragic hero dies for his virtues. Put simply, Othello is a man who trusts those around him. He is also, according to Iago, foolishly enamored of his wife. And, being a simple warrior and a Moor (read: unsophisticated foreigner), he can be easily influenced.
So not only is it curtains for Othello from the outset (like all tragic heroes, his fate must be predetermined), but he is never even given the tools with which to fight. Othello remains oblivious until the last minute, while we watch the mechanics of Iago's revenge.
What makes a play like Othello work? Nothing less than a hugely powerful actor as its hero, and an Iago whose villainy is so inventive and entertaining that we are fascinated in spite of ourselves. And while both Steven Anthony Jones as the Moor and Tony Amendola as Iago seem to be giving the performances of their lives in ACT's production, neither is quite able to overshadow the play's intrinsic weaknesses.
But every resource is brought to bear here; thanks to the company's adept ensemble work, Seyd's lively staging, Kate Edmunds' evocative set design, dramatic lighting by Peter Maradudin and inventive sound by Stephen LeGrand, they almost pull it off.
As rendered by Edmunds, the setting is nearly a character in itself: blocky, oppressive stone structures which (thanks to the echo effects of LeGrand's sound design) recreate the claustrophobic trappings of the jealous mind. Maradudin's lighting is stark, angular; the total effect reminded me of the photography of Alfred Steiglitz and the painters of the 1940s New York school. The stage is sharply focused toward a right angle at center, and all the action is concentrated as though in a vise.
But Jones' Othello seems no match for the set. Slightly overweight and not particularly tall, he makes the character appear soft rather than invincible. Revealing costumes (Shigeru Yaji) are a liability, along with a nude scene (what was Seyd thinking?), which only calls attention to the actor's body and does nothing to illuminate Othello's plight. Still, his pain and grief are palpable; he wields them with undeniable force, as though intent on keeping the drama alive until the last gasp.
Amendola's Iago is splendid: A viper at the outset, he's crafty and inventive, and laces his performance with nuance and variety. It swings moodily from rage and vengeance on the one hand to contemptuous arrogance on the other. As his plottings bear fruit, Iago becomes a chess master, who with matchless skill moves his pieces in for the kill.
Maura Vincent's Desdemona progresses from exhilarated ingŽnue to deeply aware tragic victim. Initially, she is almost jarringly contemporary; she behaves like one of Katharine Hepburn's sporty Main Line heroines. But sorrow gives her characterization focus, and she takes on a dignified nobility.
Remi Sandri makes a fine upstanding Cassio. I greatly admired Ken Grantham's Brabantio (Desdemona's father) and Domenique Lozano as Emilia, Iago's unfortunate wife.
Telling a story from the standpoint of secondary or minor characters is a tried-and-true literary device. When it works — as in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a brilliantly inventive take on Hamlet — it's an invigorating experience. When it doesn't, as in Play Desdemona, the result is a pale and flimsy exercise whose intentions remain vague and whose dramatic substance is virtually nil. But Play Desdemona is not, as implied by its carefully timed opening, really about Desdemona anyway. Set in early Restoration England, it marks the then-revolutionary notion of allowing women onstage to play female roles. Jane Gresham (Amy Beth Mordecai) has caught the fancy of actor/manager Simon Harcourt (Scott Phillips) and has been hired to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Desdemona in Othello. To teach her, Harcourt engages the services of actor Ben Trask (Allen McKelvey), who played both roles 20 years earlier. There's some envy on Harcourt's part — he and Trask were in the same company as boys, and Trask was known as a far better actor — some jockeying for position, but essentially Play Desdemona is one long, tedious acting lesson.
The play pretends fidelity to its period — roughly 1660 — but the dialogue is strictly contemporary, with characters saying things like “I'll pick you up” and “You kids play nice.” There are also references to something happening “over the weekend” and a host of other anachronisms I won't bother to go into. I can't avoid mentioning the amazing presence of Stanislavski-style teaching, or what looks like regression therapy (“close your eyes … breathe deeply … remember your father …”).
Life seems to be imitating art in terms of performances. McKelvey is easily the strongest actor on the 450 Geary stage, but even he has his troubles. I'll agree the dialogue doesn't seem worth memorizing, but his confusing line flubs certainly don't help matters. I did like his Desdemona, though.
Othello plays through June 4 at the Stage Door Theatre in S.F.; call 749-2ACT. Play Desdemona continues through May 13 at the 450 Geary Studio Theatre in S.F.; call 673-1172.