The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Presentations: Jonathan Knott
SHAKESPEAREAN MULTICULTURAL ACCENTS: A MOOR AND A JEW
performances October 2006
First, the Moor...
Though I am avidly interested in Shakespearean theater, I have never really taken to Othello. The productions I've seen have seemed to me long-winded in places and, until now, I have never seen one in which the accent was on Othello instead of Iago. That is why Brandon J. Dirden's adaptation of the play, performed by The Georgia Shakespeare Festival, is so appealing. Dirden (who also plays Othello), has done quite a job streamlining the play by reducing the cumbersome cast to six actors playing ten characters, thus eliminating the crowd scenes that he found tiresome. There were a couple of scenes, especially early on, that felt as if perhaps a bit too much cutting had been done, throwing the rhythm slightly off (which seemed to affect Joe Kenevyitch's Cassio most, though he redeemed any early faltering later when he did a fine interpretation of a normally abstemious man disguised in drink). The most important scenes were left intact, however, and the good of the adaptation far outweighed the bad. Only two actors were asked to do multiple roles. Veteran Chris Kayser, who is equally at home in a lead role or a minor one or several minor ones in this case, plays Brabantio, Montano, and Lodovico with his usual reliability, and Kate Donadio does well as the Duke of Venice, switching to a strong Emelia and an enjoyably air-headed Bianca as well.
One of the positives to come out of the shortening (besides actually keeping the audience interested the whole time) is that Iago (a fine performance by veteran newcomer John G. Preston) handles much of his own dirty work, and comes across as a more human character than he is usually portrayed. He seems more like a wronged man bent on revenge than an evil caricature. In fact, the whole play feels more human, as the focus is less on honor and race and much more on sexual jealousy.
This shift of thematic attention makes Othello seem less dated, and allows the actors to get uncomfortably close to the shadowy concerns of the audience. That is the true strength of this version of the play, and Dirden more than holds his own as the tortured Othello. He brings an unusual blend of sensitivity and masculinity to the role, and when he digs down into himself and writhes in jealous pain, his effect on the audience is intense. I found myself squirming uncomfortably several times when his performance struck home; he seemed to tap deeply into our collective susceptibility to jealousy, and the audience's reaction to his intense suffering was quietly audible throughout. His chemistry with Iago is impressive, and this is a rare performance wherein the observer is just as interested (if not more so) in Othello as in Iago. To have Othello command the greater attention is a welcome departure from the norm. The chemistry between Othello and Desdemona (Park Krausen) is also effective; the sexual tension is palpable throughout the play. It fizzles a bit only in the final scene, when Desdemona gets a little too giddy to effectively counterbalance Othello's smoldering violence.
The set is perfectly designed for such a shift in values, as the action revolves around (and in) three huge beds in the middle of the stage, flanked by enormous, billowing curtains. The appealing costumes (tight, dark and masculine on the men; flowing and midriff- exposing on the women) complement each other quite well and allow the actors freedom in their flexing and writhing. The whispery soundtrack by local composer Klimchak, which has the feeling of a track designed for a horror movie, accentuates the deep blood reds of the pillows and sheets as well as the lurid lighting, and creates a reptilian sound to go with the most powerful scenes.
The elimination of the clowns removed what levity there was in the original version and left this one unrelentingly serious. The audience laughed nervously at a few inopportune times, perhaps out of necessity. The reaction made me understand why Shakespeare built in scenes of comic relief. However, this shortened version ultimately was a tour de force, accomplished without bludgeoning the audience to death (it lasted only a little over two hours and was never boring). This was such a good adaptation, I'd love to see it performed more widely, though I'd want to insist that Dirden stay on to play his own protagonist.
I went on preview night, so it should be taken into consideration that what few miscues I noticed probably were ironed out in subsequent performances. During the post-play question and answer session among the actors, director Vincent Murphy, dramaturg Sister Smith and the audience, we learned that the company had only three weeks to prepare this performance. I find that remarkable. It is also interesting that the actors playing Cassio and Desdemona are married in real life, which gives some irony to their performances.
The most interesting revelation was Dirden's stated reasons for shifting the focus of the play. He said that people nowadays can remove themselves from the element of racism, and that society in general isn't nearly as obsessed with honor as it used to be, but that everyone can identify with sexual jealousy. The point, he said, was to tap into a universal truth and leave no member of the audience unscathed. I genuinely felt that he accomplished his mission.
And now, the Jew ...
The Shakespeare Tavern, midtown on Peachtree Street, has been for several years one of the most colorful theaters in Atlanta. Designed to remind patrons of the Shakespearean stage thrust into intimacy with the audience (in this case seated at table on the floor), it reinforces the Atlanta Shakespeare Company's goal of reproducing the Bard's plays as authentically as possible. The attention to detail includes a few upper level box seats as well as an English pub menu and excellent beer list, all of which heighten the cozy feel of the place (though it can be a bit cramped at times when folks are moving around). No modern interpretations or space costumes here; just the straight stuff in doublets and hose.
In the early years of the Tavern, the company's attempts at serious drama were unevenly successful. More recently, however, the Tavern company has proved itself capable of superb entertainment. The players who have settled in there have a knack for getting the audience involved, and several of them have absolutely fantastic comic timing. The ensemble has a talent for drawing out comic moments and capturing the crowd. I expect their style is much what Shakespeare had in mind when writing his comedies.
It is interesting, then, that they chose to do The Merchant of Venice as a comedy, pointing out that Shakespeare originally intended it to be one. As mentioned in their playbill, "according to actor David Suchet, Jews in Israel love the play, and viewing the play as anti-semitic is unique to the West." (Suchet, who is Jewish, is best known for portraying the detective on the show Poirot, but early in his career. as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was praised as "playing an excellent villain," including the role of Shylock.)
The anti-semitism that permeates the play seems so over-the-top today, it's important to remind ourselves that such opinions were generally accepted in Elizabethan England and throughout Europe at the time. This change in cultural sensibility makes for some tense moments at times during the play, as the audience often looks at one another as if to ask, "Is it okay to laugh at that?" Some of the jokes misfire, as well, not just because they're offensive (a lot can be forgiven if it's funny), but because after 500 years certain things aren't funny anymore. This comic failure didn't happen often, though, and the actors seemed aware of it when it did and were carrying on in the interest of presenting the lines as they were intended.
This intention was especially evident in the character of Launcelot, Shylock's servant (played by the reliably funny Kirk Harris Seaman). Launcelot is an offensive character in general; a funny man played him exactly as he should have. The choice was right, in my opinion, for a politically correct editing often ruins originality.
The biggest sticking point for me was Gratiano (J.C. Long), a character who was charming and stalwart through the first two-thirds of the play and again at the end, but went so overboard with being ugly to Shylock during the courtroom scene that he seemed to foam at the mouth. The classic moments that are still funny were uproarious (and far outweighed the others both in quantity and effect).
As usual, the troupe threw in a few effective gags of their own--nothing big enough to ruin the tone, just subtle but hilarious bawdiness that went with a wink to the attentive members of the audience. These moments came with the scenes involving the suitors (more over-the-top performances from Barry Stewart Mann and Andrew Hutchins, who also played somber soldiers of the Duke's court), as might be expected, and especially the ones involving mistaken identity with Portia (captivatingly played throughout by Veronika Duerr), her gentlewoman (Bahama Lynch) and their two new husbands (Paul Hester as Bassanio and Long as Gratiano). The chemistry among those four turned something that otherwise might have been merely funny into a scene that just about brought the crowd to tears with laughter.
What really balanced the play out, though, was the fine and darkly serious performance by Dikran Tulaine as Shylock. While Shylock is often played as a buffoon or a shallow little man, Tulaine brought an integrity and intensity to the role that absolutely claimed the spotlight whenever he was on stage. He was not likeable, but one couldn't help but feel sympathy for him at the end. The only thing I could've wished different about Tulaine's portrayal is that he sometimes was difficult to hear when speaking quickly, and his presence was such that I didn't want to miss what he was saying. The company also had Doug Kaye (who took a funny turn as Launcelot's blind father in this version) playing Shylock for about half the dates, and I have been told that his style is very different. It would've been interesting to see how this difference affected the overall mood of the play and the chemistry between Shylock and Antonio (Troy Willis), who, while adequate, often seemed like a tired old man who just wanted to go to sleep.
For those who wish to see Shakespeare's serious plays acted out in business suits or located on the planet Jupiter, the Shakespeare Tavern probably isn't for you. For those who like an evening of authentically displayed Shakespearean theater, producing honest mirth and some reflective moments to go with their shepherd's pie and Strongbow ale, I highly recommend the Tavern as a likely place to find it.
ATLANTA audiences are lucky to have two venues dedicated to Shakespearean theater. The Georgia Shakespeare Festival season is over until next summer, but the Shakespeare Tavern performs year-round. For a listing of upcoming performances, go to http://www.shakespearetavern.com/season_listing.htm
Copyright 2006 Barbara Knott All Rights Reserved
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