By JK Clarke . . .
Theater critics, who generally see at least 100 and often as many as 300 performances a year, tend to get a tad jaded or cynical when it comes to certain types of productions. For those of us who specialize in Shakespeare, that wariness is amplified, as Shakespeare plays are notoriously difficult to pull off, even with a professional company. So, when a small, off-off-Broadway production—like New Place Players’ new production of Othello (running through February 25 at Casa Clara)—turns out to be as pleasing as this one is, the reviewer’s reward is quadrupled.
Credit for the show’s success lies not only with New Place Players’ artistic director, Craig Bacon, but emphatically with Makenna Masenheimer, who took over directorial duties from Bacon in mid-January and extended the play from a reasonable two hour run-time to a very ambitious two hours and 45 minutes! But the gambit paid off, and whatever Masenheimer did, it was right. Though Othello is often criticized for its many dull, repetitious stretches, this production simply does not drag; and the entire cast, while somewhat uneven in talent, works as a cohesive, well-oiled ensemble, appearing confident and pleased with their work.
A significant portion of the cast and creative team are (or have been) affiliated with The Actor’s Studio, either as students or faculty, which likely helps foster a united stylistic approach.
Othello, like several of Shakespeare’s other plays (notably The Merchant of Venice) is notorious for its blatant bigotry and racist dialog, which often makes both audiences and theater companies very uneasy. However, as with most of Shakespeare’s material, these issues are neither superficial nor gratuitous and were often written to make audiences confront difficult attitudes and points-of-view. In Othello, the main character (a Venetian General who’s described as a “Moor”—one of the less offensive ways of indicating a dark-skinned person in Elizabethan England), is plague by his ensign Iago, who is enraged that another man, Cassio, has been promoted instead of him. That he uses racial epithets to denigrate Othello speaks mostly to Iago’s despicable character (Othello is a nobleman and General in the Venetian Army, which suggests more equality in the era than one would expect). In falsely accusing Othello’s young wife Desdemona of not just infidelity, but promiscuity, Iago also reveals his misogyny. Basically, he’s a narcissistic sociopath who will stop at nothing to exact “revenge” on Othello.
The story is tragic only because Othello is duped by Iago’s machinations and, in a sexist turn of his own, believes his ambitious underling rather than his devoted wife. At an essential turning point in the play, as he thinks he’s being made aware of Desdemona’s affair with Cassio, he hits upon an essential truth, which he interprets incorrectly:
I swear ’tis better to be much abused,/
Than but to know’t a little . . .
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all.” (Act III, Scene iii).
Were he not infected by Iago’s contrived narrative, Othello could easily have trusted her . . . and we, the audience, writhe in frustration as we witness his fatal misstep.
A compelling production of Othello depends significantly on powerful, believable performances by the actors playing both Iago and Othello. Iago must be conniving and evil; Othello must be powerful and vulnerable. In this instance, Conor Andrew Hall (Iago) and Eliott Johnson (Othello) succeed admirably. Neither are seasoned Shakespearean actors, but both are enthusiastic and hard-working; their delivery is confident and even, and both are deeply immersed in their roles. Hall, with straggly, long hair and a Grizzly Adams beard evokes a demonic Hell’s Angel in his plotting and vindictiveness; little touches—like fondling the dagger strapped behind him on his waist as he plots against Othello—add to the character’s depth. Johnson, who shows a great deal of promise for future roles in Shakespeare, is charismatic and confident. With more work toward mastery of the dialog he could well become a great Shakespearean actor.
In addition to the central characters, the production team has done an excellent job of casting other central roles—more often than not, the actors look and feel their characters quite admirably. Notably, Alanah Allen is a terrific Desdemona, both fragile and self-confident (until the end, of course), has a strong command of the language and meets the role head-on, coming off as both believable and sympathetic. Helen Herbert’s Emilia and Matthew Iannone’s Cassio are also both well-performed and convincing.
In addition to the cast (and casting), the biggest standout of the production are Jennifer Paar’s utterly magnificent costumes. It appears that a significant portion of the budget went to costumes, and Paar worked magic with them. Probably not Elizabethan, but 19th century or earlier, they add a classic touch; and, because most of the audience is seated within feet of the stage, attention to detail is paramount. Even little flourishes like the antique, stork-shaped sewing scissors hanging from Emilia’s belt reinforce authenticity. Paar’s costumes easily rival many similar Broadway productions.
Other production components enhance the play, as well, with only a couple detracting. I was especially interested in this production because I had frequently passed the building that housed the theater space, Casa Clara—an unassuming, but attractive, ivy-covered, four-story former foundry—but had no clue as to its interior. I could never have guessed the building, a former foundry, had a long, railroad-style space that extending from the front to the back in one long room; even better, it opens up into a wide, skylit two story room with exposed brick walls adorned with statuary and rescued bas-relief antiquities.
Shawn Lewis’s simple set design (with the audience lining either wall and large ornate rugs acting as the stage, creating an “in the round” effect) and Ethan Steimel’s lighting created a close, intimate environment. That only became a problem during swordplay, when large broadswords swished only a few feet from those seated along the walls. But fight director Aaron McDaniel did an exemplary job of ensuring no one felt vulnerable. The onstage trio of musicians (featuring a harpist, lutenist, violist and a variety of percussion instruments) added nice ambiance, though the music was often too dominant, making it difficult to hear dialog, despite the actors being a mere few feet away. Perhaps if they played in the loft their contribution would be more impactful.
Othello ranks fairly low on my list of preferred Shakespeare plays, but a production as strong as this one changes my feelings toward it significantly. It may not be a professional production, but it was certainly more enjoyable (and considerably cheaper) than last year’s star-studded, but flaccid Macbeth on Broadway. I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing the next venture from both New Place Players and Makenna Masenheimer.
Othello. Through February 25 at Casa Clara (218 East 25th Street, between Second and Third Avenues). Two hours, 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. Performances Wednesday through Sunday, with matinees Saturday. www.newplaceplayers.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg