One of the best things about going to a BSF show is always the atmosphere. I love that parquet floor, the balcony, the addition of the white tarping. And the gorgeous, amazing costumes. Don’t forget those costumes. Original Pronunciation productions are a brain child of Tom Delise, a noted Shakespeare scholar and expert. The idea is to bring you a play the way audiences would have seen it in Shakespeare’s era.
Everyone knows the story of Othello, but if you don’t, here’s the Sparknotes. Othello promotes Cassio to Lieutenant instead of Iago. Iago decides he will get revenge on him, and begins a devious set of steps to make it appear that Othello’s wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio behind Othello’s back. The famous line is “O beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meet it feeds on.” Iago leads Othello into a false snare of jealousy, and it becomes both of their undoings (with a few other casualties along the way too, because, you know, Shakespeare.)
As in keeping with period-appropriate ambiance, there is pre-show, and intermission music played by the minstrels that double as actors in the show. The songs are modern, in keeping with “of the current era” and often link thematically to the show somehow. My favorite in the pre-show renditions was “Mr. Brightside” which for some reason made me and my date very giddy and giggly. The minstrels mistook our amusement for admiration, and hammed it up more and more for us. You are all welcome.
I am a sucker for period costuming. Maybe because I want to make it so bad but am of limited skill set in the sewing department, so mine are like 70-80% good looking where as these look Smithsonian quality. When Troy Jennings enters for the first time as Othello, in black with the red sash, boots clicking in military precision, I though, oh god yes! And the theme of red sashes carries as he later strips it from Cassio and gives it to Iago, siding himself against his once right (er, um left) hand man and supplanting him. There was thematic coloring for “sides” and I love that shit. And the bead work on Desdemona’s dress, the small details in lacing and form, swoon.
Jess Behar played Aemelia, Iago’s wife with precision and frivolity. Her purple gown had sleeves and gold trim of complete gorgeousness. I thought occasionally she slipped a bit far into her old pronunciation, and when asked the audience questions, they just blinked at her. Maybe they didn’t understand the question? Too much wine? I don’t know. In her defense, it was a Sunday matinee too, where crowds tend to be a little lackluster in enthusiasm. Jess also doubles as the Messenger, and Servant, where her costume changes, and she assumes bit parts before resuming her leading position, as Iago’s wife.
Ian Blackwell Rogers was a convincing and conniving Iago. I loved his locks, the ringlet curls spoke a bit Shirley Temple (hey I’m innocent, you can trust me) and a bit naughty (there once was a little girl…). The most amazing moment to me, but I am a nerd, is when Othello had an epileptic seizure. In previous productions I have seen, Othello is shaking with rage, and when Cassio comes to the door, Iago says “epileptic fit” more to get rid of Cassio than in truth. Once the door slams, Othello and Iago immediately regain composure. But in this rendition, Othello has a full on seizure type episode. And after shooing Cassio away, Iago goes over to Othello and pats his face and body, in an almost loving way. I really liked it. Iago is often made to be a straight villain- sheer revenge and plot. I really liked Rogers interpretation where Iago is complex and multi-faceted, he is two-faced and devious but also has redeeming qualities. I mean would Othello put him as a high ranking official in his army if he was devoid of any capabilities? This seems a much more mature, and nuanced performance, and I really dug it. I also really relished in the muted bromance as a persuasive art with Rodrigo. Well played sir.
Jim Hart as Brabatantio was lovely as always. And in my opinion one of actors who really nailed the balance between original pronunciation and enunciating and emoting enough to still get his story across aptly. Conrad Deitrick as Montano among others, also filled perfunctory roles but really shined when crooning to the audience, “Girl I know you’re paranoid…” Terry O’Hara plays a fouled and fumbling Rodrigo with grace, but my favorite is that I swear he looks like a young John Cleese. (Watch some classic Monty Python!) Once I had that thought, that’s all I could see and was pleasantly amused by his animated facial expressions, I thought I was watching classic television! Micaela Mannix is a fabulous fool with flippant frocks and sweeping gestures that pin her as a comical folly. Her doubling as Bianca is well-versed and bold in a blue hue. Grayson Owen entered as the Duke in an ensemble that was as comical as it was bold. He was also one of the character who I thought used facial gestures and a more critical enunciation to really bring modern understanding to his archaic wording. I loved Owen best as the Duke trying not to get involved in this squabble among the commoners, but he also did a nice job doubling as Lodovico and a musician with a little too much enthusiasm.
Kathryn Zoerb is cute as can be, she reminds me of a brunette Reese Witherspoon. Her innocence and adorable nature exudes in her gestures, ebullience, and concern for Cassio. She does a nice job being a loving wife and victim of Iago’s deception. And I wasn’t ready for her canary bird entrance! We get a small glimpse of her songbird abilities in the intermission and more as she sings before her subsequent face-off with Othello. Her death scene with flailing legs and gasps for air was almost too intense to watch- bravo. And I loved that instead of acquiescing her fate as some actors have done before, when she realized what was in store for her, she makes one last attempt to save herself (to no avail- spoiler alert).
Cassio is aptly brought to life by David Martin, a recurring BSF Actor. His admission of innocence and gullibility really seal his part. Often actors seemed to stand at the corner of the stage with their back (and butt) to the audience. I don’t care for it, I want to see their faces, but in Martin’s case, it works well when we realize the handkerchief has been firmly planted in his belt waistband. Okay, so the back acting is alright here.
And then there was Othello. Troy Jennings is stately, handsome, and slightly vulnerable. He was an excellent Othello. I loved everything from his costuming to his booming voice, just the way I like my leads. His attitude of aloof disinterest in the opening, to his “shook to the core” and falling on his knees in disgust, rage, and jealousy really showcased his skill set as an actor.
This isn’t for everyone. Sometimes it just sounds like they “put the em-pha’-sis on the wrong syl-la’-ble.” But I think there’s a fine line here to be walked- I went home and did more research on Othello than I every done previously, even when teaching it. So, did I look things up because of the divide in language and understanding? Or was I compelled to delve deeper into the text and characterization because of this particular production? It could be both, or either. You go and decide for yourself.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Are you a nerd? Do you like research? Authenticism? Period pieces? Gorgeous costumes in amazing scenic spaces? Do you want to see actors at their finest, managing odd words with grace while keeping true to character? Then this is your thing! Check out an Original Pronunciation production at least once to see if its your bag or not. And its Othello- its classic! And the actors, music, and ambiance seal a guaranteed lovely and enjoyable evening of theater. (I)
Photo Credit: Will Kirk. Running time two hours and thirty minutes with one fifteen intermission. Get there early for pre-show music. Runs through April 29th at The Great Hall at St. Mary’s.