Othello — Image via guthrietheater.org

Othello

Guthrie Theater
Directed by Marion McClinton

The Guthrie Theater’s current production of Shakespeare’s Othello contains some standout performances provided mostly by the play’s more peripheral characters. Kris Nelson makes for a lovably naïve Roderigo, Raye Birk a convincingly befuddled Brabantio. Similarly, Tracey Maloney’s Desdemona shows understated strength without being syrupy sweet, as often happens with the role. Finally, John Catron’s levelheaded Cassio is nearly perfect; he neither feels like a mere tool in Iago’s pursuit to drive Othello mad nor overpowers the more important characters in the play. We can clearly see, by his measured steadiness and unshakable but still believable loyalty, why he has become Othello’s second in command. Additionally, Esosa’s costume designs are truly lovely and feature brightly textured Venetian silks, clean and elegant lines, and patterns that feel contemporary, yet still appropriate for the fifteenth century.

Othello — Image via guthrietheater.orgIn thinking about what made the abovementioned performances the ones I enjoyed the most, I must admit that it is not only that the actors seemed to understand and inhabit their roles well, but also, quite frankly, that these were the characters I could both hear and understand clearly. This brings me to the major problems of the production. Many of the lines were either not fully enunciated or were spoken too quickly or too quietly to be heard.

Othello is a long play. It seems that director Marion McClinton would have been better off either resigning himself to the fact that the play in its uncut form takes around four hours to perform or cutting some of the less essential lines. I know Othello fairly well, and there were numerous moments in the play when I could pick up maybe one in ten words spoken. I can only imagine what the experience must have been like for someone coming to the play for the first time (and indeed, audience chatter overheard during intermission confirmed my suspicions that many people were simply not catching what was being said). I don’t necessarily think that theater should be “easy,” but I also don’t think it should be frustratingly indecipherable, especially in a Shakespeare play where the language is pretty much the whole point.

Othello — Image via guthrietheater.orgThis brings me to the roles of Othello (Peter Macon) and Iago (Stephen Yoakam). Macon, when he wasn’t rushing, was as good of an Othello as I have ever seen. Compared to the diabolical Iago, Othello often gets to be little more than a tedious pawn in his ancient’s project of sabotage. Not so with Macon. The jokey camaraderie he had with his soldiers, his professional dignity when dealing with state officials, and his love and desire for his new wife made Macon’s Othello seem far more human and complex than Othello usually gets to be. However, every time Othello became angry or contemplative, his words, which are some of the best in the play, tended to get sacrificed for speed.

Like Macon’s Othello, there were certain aspects of Yoakam’s Iago that I liked. Many Iagos are too obvious in their attempts to make you understand that they are evil. They leer at the end of every line; they revel a little too enthusiastically in their own dirty jokes; they are too deliberate in letting you see them hatch their odious plans, as if they are mere amateurs in the game of treachery. Yoakam’s Iago, rather than portraying the more conventional criminal mastermind, was just kind of pathetic. With lank and greasy hair, a hangdog expression, and twitchy mannerisms, he was less genius than loser. This made for a refreshing change of pace, and I found myself wishing I could understand more of what he was saying.

Othello — Image via guthrietheater.orgCasting Regina Marie Williams as Iago’s wife, Emilia, was an interesting directorial decision. While it is always good to see more faces of color on the Guthrie stage, choosing to give Iago a black wife complicates the commonly held notion that much of Iago’s hatred for Othello is racially motivated. I was excited to see how the play would frame Iago and Emilia’s relationship in light of Iago’s clear prejudice toward Othello, and was disheartened to see that no dramatic tension was ever really established between the couple. This lack of development may be partially due to the fact that Williams was not an ideal Emilia. Whereas Emilia at her best serves as the play’s seat of feminine strength, a character who sees truth before anyone else does, who all but quivers with suppressed rage and the weight of patriarchal injustice heaped upon her, Williams’ Emilia was frantic, shrill, and lacked the world-weary wisdom that makes Emilia a powerful and memorable character.

If this review comes off as harsh, it is because, as the Twin Cities’ premier theatrical organization, the Guthrie’s ability to perform Shakespeare matters. If the production as a whole had been as consistently brilliant as the four actors I mentioned at the beginning of my review, this would have been a world-class version of Othello. However, the lack of judicious editing, the breakneck speed with which much of Shakespeare’s language was delivered, and the general technical problems of clarity of speech and volume, made this production of Othello feel like an enormous missed opportunity for the Guthrie.

Photos by Joan Marcus

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Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.