Tuesday, September 13, 2005


So I saw Othello on Sunday night. Starring Avery Brooks and Patrick Page. It's a gorgeous production. Really spare and traditionally costumed, but very simple. They really decided to allow the story and the words take center stage. I know this play better than I thought I did, as I realized that I've seen it four times. I've never seen my favorite play, Hamlet, ever produced live once. Which...I find sort of fascinating. I think people think it's overproduced or overdone, and everyone knows it. Anyway, Othello has a lot going for it. It's a pretty compact story, for one thing. I mean, if you really look at it, it's about six people, and how five of them allow the sixth one to completely play them. It has two great characters who present a huge challenge. Othello has to be self confident enough to command respect, but with a tinge of wariness, of knowing that he is tolerated, not seen as an equal. Iago has to hide his malelovence, his anger, his sense of injustice and being wronged and put on the apprearance of loyalty and friendship. I think they're both terrifically difficult to pull off. The first two times I saw it, separated by ten years (the first time at the Stratford Festival in Canada, the second a reverse race production at the Shakespeare Theatre where I saw it on Sunday) were earnest but flawed productions. The first crippled by a poor Othello, the second by a wooden Iago. In both, I was baffled by the trust everyone placed in Iago. He didn't come off as trustworthy in either of these productions. He came off as sneaky and oily and someone I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw him. As a result, I thought the play was terribly flawed.

And then about three years ago I saw a production at the Folger Library, and it transformed my perception of the play. Iago! The reason everyone liked him was because...he's likeable! He's everyone's friend, he invites confidences, confides in his turn. He's got something for everybody, an answer, a helping hand, a plan. None of them realize that he's sitting in the middle, orchestrating their every move. His wife craves his attention and approval, Cassio needs his connection to Desdamona, Othello trusts his consul, Rodrigo pays to get Desdamona for himself. Only Desdamona doesn't need him for the continuation of her future. In fact, he is the impediment to her future. It's a delicate balance, to maintain all those different plots. In addition, it was an inventive production. A revelation, in fact.

Patrick Page managed to continue this trend of playing Iago well. Other aspects of the production were uneven, to me. Avery Brooks was the central weak point, as he didn't seem to really connect with the emotional core of the character. I felt there was a lot of bombast and play acting, but not a lot of truth, in the portrayal. He didn't really connect with Desdamona, either. I never really bought the love affair, it was...too cutsey. There didn't seem to be a deeper emotional bond between Othello and Desdamona. But Page. Wow. He was really wonderful. He was so easy with everyone, always ready with the right word, a handy drink, a word of concern. He was so smooth, drawing everyone in, taking pleasure at every downturn of their fortunes. In the end, you never really know what motivates him. Even once he gets what you think he's after, he's not done. In some cases, I think that Iago was truly shocked at what happened. Not displeased, but astonished that it worked as well as he thought it would, maybe even better. At the end, when he sees the final tableau of what he's wrought, Page looked fascinated and satisfied, as if saying, "Job well done," to himself.

Another aspect of the play that fascinates me is the relationship between Iago and Emilia. He keeps her off blalance, and she is constantly vying for his attention, and he knows that if he withholds it, she's likely to continue trying to please him. I've always wondered at Emilia's seeming complicity in Iago's plan, but seeing her played this way, I understood more her desire for affection for her husband. I which she'd been more pained by seeing Othello and Desdamona's relationship, since it seems to be everything she wants and doesn't have.

I guess that's why it's a classic. Every time I see it I get something else from it, and my understanding of it deepens. And as i get older, I have a greater appreciation for Shakespeare's art, for his ability to see the nature of people.


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