Story: Othello, a Moor and a military general serving the City of Venice, falls in love with Desdemona, daughter of the Venetian senator Brabantio. They secretly wed, drawing the wrath of her father when he learns she has married an African. The Duke of Venice, however, dismisses Brabantio’s charges against Othello when the latter is ordered to lead Venetian forces into battle against the Turkish army over the rights to the island of Cyprus.
A storm sinks the Turkish fleet and its forces, and Othello is made governor of Cyprus. The Moor himself had promoted one of his officers, Michael Cassio, to be his lieutenant, enraging another subordinate, Iago. The latter subsequently seeks revenge via an intricate plot that falsely implicates Cassio as Desdemona’s lover, convincing the gullible general that his wife and lieutenant are carrying on behind his back. Consumed by jealousy, Othello decides that Cassio must die and Desdemona pay a steep price for her alleged infidelity.
Highlights: Who doesn’t understand such basic human feelings as jealousy and revenge? For that reason, as well as a rather straightforward script, Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello has been a popular favorite for centuries. In fact, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis executive director Rick Dildine says in his program notes that Othello has been the top selection of festival audiences to be performed for several years. Thanks to the crystal clear direction of Bruce Longworth and the meticulous instruction of the cast by voice and text coach Suzanne Mills, the Festival’s interpretation makes for a mostly engaging and satisfying evening.
Other Info: Longworth sets this presentation a century ago, an era still sufficiently immersed in taboos such as inter-racial marriage to maintain the underlying tenets of the plot while also showing the timeless, universal power of basic human emotions at the heart of the drama. The set designed by Robbie Jones is a bi-level structure with two huge doors on either level, with the appearance of a military style building. It also somewhat bizarrely depicts a giant gear behind the doors, gradually revealed in Act II to perhaps reflect Iago’s intricate machinations.
In any event, that set is eloquently lit by John Wylie with radiant hues that are most pronounced at key dramatic moments. Lou Bird’s costumes dress the folks in early 20th century regalia, while Rusty Wandall’s sound design and original compositions by Greg MacKinder support the effect. Paul Dennhardt’s fight choreography brings a gritty realism to the swordplay between Cassio, Iago and others at various times, including a drunken brawl instigated by Iago.
The cast is convincing and compelling throughout the two hours and 45 minutes they’re on stage, led by Billy Eugene Jones in the title role. His Othello is amorous in the pursuit and love for his bride as effectively as he is twisted and confused when manipulated by his trusted ensign. As Iago, Justin Blanchard controls the proceedings as he takes advantage of the common opinion that he’s an ‘honest man’ to quench his lingering thirst for vengeance. Blanchard ensures that Iago’s designs are well orchestrated with a direct and forceful tone.
Supporting roles are finely interpreted, whether Joshua Thomas’ amenable approach to the vital, loyal Cassio or Kim Stauffer’s controlled characterization of the honorable and abused Emilia, Iago’s long-suffering wife and companion to Desdemona. As Othello’s bride, Heather Wood portrays Desdemona with beauty, strength and determination, a fitting complement to the noble soldier.
Whit Reichert excels in his powerful early scenes as the grievously offended Brabantio. Joneal Joplin, another of several splendid local actors in the cast, brings gravitas to the role of the Duke of Venice, while Jerry Vogel portrays Venetian nobleman Lodovico with assured compassion and wisdom.
Rudi Utter captures the foolhardy optimism of the love-struck Roderigo and Christopher Hickey is a steady and solid presence as Montano, the governor of Cyprus. As Cassio’s paramour Bianca, Cherie Corinne Rice sparkles in a few judiciously performed scenes as she fights for the love of her man.
The tight ensemble that provides ballast in various scenes is comprised of Michael Fariss, Jared Lotz, Kevin Mimms, Chauncy Thomas, Eric Dean White and Pete Winfrey.
Apart from a second act that seems to drag too long, even when peppered with the lively antics of the Belly Dance Mirage dancers, this Othello succeeds in translating one of The Bard’s enduring stories for a modern audience.
The performance is preceded nightly by a ‘Green Show’ that includes a clever, 20-minute version of Othello titled Othello in a Breath, directed by Christopher Limber, written by Elizabeth Birkenmeier and featuring original music by Dave Torretta. Its’ tight, five-person ensemble includes Anna Blair, Khnemu Menu-Ra, Michael Perkins, Drew Pannebecker and Laura Sexauer. Acrobats, jugglers and dancers also are featured throughout the Glen beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Group: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Venue: Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park near the Art Museum
Dates: Nightly except Tuesdays through June 17
Tickets: Free admission
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of David Levy