Stories: In Othello in a Breath, playwright Elizabeth Birkenmeier adapts Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, hatred and deception into a 50-minute presentation. Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a black military leader and the victorious general of the Italian city state. His malevolent, scheming ensign, Iago, convinces Othello that his wife Desdemona is having an affair with Othello’s chief lieutenant, Michael Cassio. Iago plants circumstantial evidence to sway the jealous Othello into seeking revenge against both his wife and Cassio, with tragic results.
Christopher Limber, education director for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ education tour, wrote Cruel to Be Kind?, an original, 50-minute work about the lingering effects of bullying on all involved. In Limber’s play, The Bard, working feverishly to finish his comedy, As You Like It, for the opening of his New Globe Theatre in London in 1599, observes the brutish way in which his oldest apprentice treats his younger apprentice. He also notices the crude behavior exhibited by others in his own residence, including his landlady, whose love for Shakespeare’s cocky clown, William Kemp, blinds her to the feelings of her own daughter, a lass who yearns for a life on the stage despite the English tradition of permitting only men and boys to perform. How can Will make this world better?
Highlights: Director Limber has assembled a smart and savvy quintet of performers who bring both stories alive with their vibrant and convincing interpretations. Anna Blair, Khnemu Menu-Ra, Drew Pannebecker, Michael Perkins and Laura Sexauer assume an impressive variety of roles as they fluidly move in and out of their portrayals of sundry characters who keep both stories moving at a brisk pace.
Birkenmeier’s truncated adaptation of Othello works beautifully in conveying the gist of The Bard’s timeless story about the fearsome power of the duplicitous over the duped. Limber’s work offers a strong lesson in palatable form about the lasting damage that is done by bullies, not only to their victims but also to onlookers who lack the courage to intervene, and even to the perpetrators who often mimic the scarred memories of their own lives.
Other Info: More than 40,000 students annually see these 50-minute Education Tour productions of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Additionally, a 20-minute version of Othello in a Breath will be performed twice nightly this summer in Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park prior to the nightly presentation of Othello by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Also, following performances of Cruel to Be Kind? at local schools, students are encouraged in talk-back sessions to discuss bullying in terms of the characters in the show before participating in a workshop titled Bullies and Boundaries.
The objectives of all Shakespeare Festival St. Louis education programs are to build analytical and literacy skills through the examination of Shakespeare’s language, to inspire imaginative thinking as students explore the plays, to engender mutual respect among all participants, to foster creativity as students create designs and characters in performance, and to provide a showcase for acquired skills building both confidence and self-esteem.
To that end, Limber provides a hefty amount of background material on each of the plays as well as substantial information about Shakespeare and his times and how The Bard’s words resonate today.
Still, little of this would matter if the performances were wooden or perfunctory. Most fortunately, such is not the case, as the players consistently demonstrate the breadth and depth of their skills in showing students how Shakespeare remains relevant in the 21st century. With considerable dexterity and agility, they move gracefully from one of Teresa Doggett’s handsomely rendered costumes to another, often with the stirring original music of Dave Torretta in the background.
Patrick Huber’s two set designs include a colorful ‘graphic novel’ look for Othello in a Breath that features quotations from the work prominently displayed in oversized graphics here and there, while his design for Cruel to Be Kind? includes an amusing backdrop of a London street and The Bard’s tidy apartment located up stage.
Wendy Gough’s masks prove exceedingly effective in conveying various characters, while Andria Mantle’s properties are put to solid use throughout. Emily Clinger is the efficient tour manager and Kelly O’Connell is the most capable production manager for the troupe.
Blair, Menu-Ra, Pannebecker, Perkins and Sexauer all make it look substantially easier than we know it is, something children and adults alike can appreciate in their rich and colorful performances. For information about either show or to schedule an appearance, contact tour booking manager Patti Walley at email@example.com or 314-531-9800, ext. 108.
Plays: Othello in a Breath and Cruel to Be Kind?
Group: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis Education Tour
Venue: Various schools and stages around town
Dates: Through May 18
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ron Lindsay