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'Othello': I kissed thee ere I killed thee...

Forgive the lateness of this week's column, my fiends, but I must needs delay long enough to witness the splendor that is Othello.

Sorry. Once you spend an evening in Shakespeare Glen, you start thinking in Elizabethan English. I, of course, have a natural tendency toward it. (Ahem. What's my name again? Thank you, I'll be here all week.)

Othello is striking from the beginning, with sumptuous 1912 costuming and a steampunk set that seems equally at home for Wicked as for one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. The cogs of consummate villain Iago's machinations are slowly revealed - quite literally, in giant clockwork wheels behind the set - as the story of Othello, Desdemona and their cohorts unfolds. In all technical aspects of this year's production by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Othello is a masterpiece.

In fact, I honestly could find no real fault with this production. The Shakespeare Festival always provides above-average interpretations of the Bard's work, and even when they stumble (Much Ado in the wild wild West?) they are still head and shoulders above most Shakespearean theater I've seen performed.

This time, however, they've outdone themselves. Othello is in more than capable hands with Billy Eugene Jones, who sells us on both sides of Shakespeare's Moor with great dexterity. A soldier and a man, he shows us the tender love Othello bears toward his Desdemona with so much chemistry that the first act makes it seem impossible he could ever harm her.

Aside: If you think I'm going to put a spoiler warning on a 400-year-old play, you're hilariously mistaken. But knowing the end still made me doubt how this charming, loving couple could possibly be torn apart.

Iago spins his web across the stage under the hands of Justin Blanchard. As noted by an essay in the program, Othello is really Iago's story, just as Julius Caesar is far more the story of Brutus. But Iago is no honorable man. The number of times the cast blithely calls him "honest" is all the more teeth-gritting as his hatred and smiling servility smarms across the stage. (Say that three times.) "How am I, then, a villain?" he asks, and at once we see the truth of it: he merely sets the stage, much as Shakespeare himself, and lets others undo themselves. I overheard another patron call Blanchard's performance, "a brilliant asshole," and one cannot truly argue with the assessment.

Shining through is Heather Wood as a Desdemona with both agency and intelligence. It is far too easy to play Desdemona as passive; she is the ultimate victim, of course, the perfect loving Mary Sue adored by all and undone by the actions of others. Wood manages to escape all of that with inflection, tone and dignity, living within the time period that demanded she call her husband Lord, yet clearly a woman of strength and fortitude within herself. More to the point: she is a Desdemona who fights back, who strives to save herself and her husband at the same time, even when it is her husband who is the greatest threat. If you have ever eschewed Othello because you cannot imagine a wife blithely lying in bed waiting for her husband to kill her, you will not be disappointed in this production.

Extra credit goes to Kim Stauffer as Emilia, a functional plot device who nevertheless gets the groundbreaking feminist monologue in Act IV (at least, the feminism of 1604) and stands as the sole voice of righteousness in the final moments of the play. Emilia likewise can be played as her husband's mindless tool whose futile rebellion costs her her life. (Again: the play's been around for 400 years. Read a damn book.) That Emilia stands as the bravest character on the stage at the end, surrounded by cowardly, jealous men, shows that director Bruce Longworth realizes the true strength of Shakespeare's women, far ahead of his time.

It is not a short play; plan on three and a half hours from curtain, not including the always-enjoyable green show beforehand. (Extra applause for the strolling jugglers!) But it never feels like three and a half hours; the pace is quick and the staging manipulated so you are never confused or lost in the language. It is the first Shakespeare production in the park that has tempted me to return again for another viewing, and that's with the mosquitoes.

I strongly recommend this summer's Shakespeare Festival production of Othello. This is not the year to miss out, and very well might be St. Louis' strongest theatrical production of the year. The festival runs every night except Tuesdays through June 17, and is free to all - but I suggest getting there early enough to score a good seat. You won't be disappointed.

Comments

Jasonrtippitt

My favorite version of Othello remains the production with Eamonn Walker (OZ) as the title character, Keeley Hawes (MI-5, ASHES TO ASHES) as Desdemona, and Christopher Eccleston (DOCTOR WHO, CRACKER) as Iago. The setting is London of the late 20th or early 21st century, the army is the Metropolitan Police Service, and the grudge is what Iago sees as an affirmative action promotion given to his fellow officer. Though I'd add that it doesn't mirror the original script, so it's maybe not for purists.

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