Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Othello at Oregon Shakespeare FestivalOthello by William Shakespeare

Words, words, words!  Othello (Peter Macon, pictured left) and Iago (Dan Donohue, pictured right) made me feel like they each had too many of those damn multisyllabic chores to get through before they were allowed to go offstage and do something else.

There was one wordy speech after another.   You know the kind: they’re loaded with big rhyming Shakespeare words.  Good-for-you and opaque.

Othello starts off on full-tilt loud ranting pitch which Macon maintains for nearly every scene and utterance.  Donohue is quieter, more controlled, and clearer. But, he is also always talking through a mouth full of dusty Elizabethan words. Additionally, Donohue’s voice quavers annoyingly when he’s trying to communicate intensity.  Dan, retire the vibrato!

At two hours fifty minutes Othello was more of an endurance trial for both actors and audience.  They spoke, we listened and tried to give meaning to the syllables.  The powerful story of jealousy, betrayal, and tragic love appeared repeatedly, but only briefly. 

The night was spent with Macon and Donohue declaiming in mostly separate spaces.  The common factor was that each of them had been told to walk off stage before completing the last sentence and to seem amazed at how many words they had to say.

Vilma Silva as Iago’s wife Emilia broke free of the blank verse prison which unaccountably captured the other actors. I understood Emilia, her predicament, her relationship with her husband, and her reactions.  By looks and measured speech, she told me a story.

Danforth Comins as Othello’s lieutenant Cassio also had clarity and purpose.  It wasn’t a huge part, but at least I understood what he was about. 

Other performances were generally very talented, but in acted out in isolation.  Sarah Rutan (Desdemona), Robert Vincent Frank (Duke of Venice), and Jonathan Haugen (First Senator) were excellent.  Tony “Blustering” DeBruno (Desdemona’s father and then uncle) and Christopher “Goofy” DeVal (Roderigo) were below par, reprising/phoning in their parts recycled from other OSF plays.  Others were at least serviceable.

Based on their other works, it’s clear that the cast is more talented than the result of their collective effort.  How did it happen that acting talent was present, but there was no powerful story?

Director Lisa Peterson showed no vision for Othello.  She let Othello, Iago, and Desdemona pretty much wander on their own.  They had their parts, but didn’t connect.  The supporting crafts work was similarly independent and off-putting.

The worst choice for crafts mood setting was the work of “Composer & Sound Designer” Paul James Prendergast.  Each act and several scenes were introduced by eerie Sci-Fi wails which were dead ringers for those in the TV series Battlestar Galactia.  If you’re a BSG fan, you’ll think the next scene will be a flashback to Caprica before the Cylons attacked.  It’s the same brooding recorder sound.  It’s a powerful spooky sound, but doesn’t work as all-purpose bumper music for Othello.

Designer Christopher Acebo’s costumes were timeless… in the sense that they didn’t belong in any known period in history.   What would you call Iago’s garb?  An Elizabethan leather car coat? Would a general wear the striped black and brown leather thing given to Othello? Why were they wearing those things? The other characters had more traditional quasi-Elizabethan dress, but the waists were unnaturally high, most colors were drab cream, and the whole wardrobe was distracting. If I had felt that the costumes were part of a grand design, maybe they would be stunning. But, in this production they felt like isolated cloth art.

Scenic designer Rachel Hauck presented a blank slab stage with a drain (for blood?) running up and down its center.   A couple times a bed or other prop would appear in the middle. Why so minimal? 

So when the actors, the set designer, the costume designer, and the music guy all go off and do their own disjointed thing, what do we fault?  Another disappointing job by another director who had not previously worked in Ashland.  Artistic Director Bill Rauch simply needs to work more closely with the younger talents he selects or else hire directors who are already skilled in regional repertory theater. 

Ozdachs Rating:  Rating 3 out of 5 

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4 Responses to Othello

  1. Anonymous says:

    It was a GREAT production of OTHELLO!… (what were YOU watching?)

    I saw KING LEAR at the Royal Shakespeare Company several years ago and sat in front of a group of young students. At one point one of the boys sitting behind me said “Ohhhh, why doesn’t he just DIE… Everybody KNOWS the story!” He, like you, Mr. Ozdachs, missed the point. Take a cue from life, it isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey.

    Why go to the theatre because you think it will be “good for you”. And don’t assume that to be everybody’s motive for going to see a Shakespeare play. It shouldn’t be a chore. Go because you want to open your heart and mind, and to experience something new. If you can’t experience something new every time you listen to the words of HAMLET or RICHARD III or OTHELLO or AS YOU LIKE IT, then you are simply not listening – you are not paying attention – and you are not open to what’s there.

    In the spirit of free speech, I feel compelled to challenge you a bit. Mainly because I disagree with your views so completely, and because your “review” is so uniformly mean spirited.

    This year’s O.S.F. production of OTHELLO is amazing – truly moving and rare. My family and I absolutely loved it, and I have read and heard such stellar things from others who have seen it as well. Just to note: the Shakespeare Festival is reviewed extensively all up and down the west-coast (Here in Seattle, L.A., Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, etc.) It is rare to run into such a thoroughly loved production and this OTHELLO.

    And what about these “WORDS WORDS WORDS” that Shakespeare wrote? Annoying to all? Well, not really. First, OTHELLO is undeniably one of the greatest plays ever written in the English language. That fact would only be argued by one with little understanding, patience, or appetite for complex and beautifully expressive language – Those WORDS that reveal a rare and profound depth of human behavior and emotion.

    Sometimes it’s fine to skip the play and just read the Cliff Notes instead, or to go to see that watered down adaptation of COMEDY OF ERRORS (about 25% Shakespeare? – pretty costumes though – and one funny joke about beans). And sometimes I bet you just feel like sitting at home and watching re-runs of The Golden Girls, right? There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. They can be enjoyable. But if that’s the mood you are in, why come to see a play like OTHELLO, or HAMLET, or THE MERCHANT OF VENICE and then why complain about the actors saying ‘all those darn lines’? What could you have possibly expected? It’s OTHELLO. When you come to see OTHELLO, you shouldn’t expect to see a panto. And no, trust me when I say that Shakespeare’s play OTHELLO would NOT be better set down in modern, colloquial English (though it has been done in films), nor would it be better set in the wild west, or squeezing in a few toe tapping musical numbers (though the Verdi opera OTELLO is wonderful too). In Shakespeare’s OTHELLO there are words, and a lot of them. And no, Shakespeare wasn’t a hack for writing them. Nor are the actors idiots for saying them, and saying them with feeling and meaning.

    You missed it, Ozdachs. This was a great production – beautiful and imaginative in design and direction. Brave, expressive, and moving in performances by the whole cast. Your review, on the other hand, comes off sounding as if you walked in with a big chip on your shoulder, arms folded, and resentful about being there from first to last. I am awed by your disdain for those actors mentioned, the designers, the director, the play itself, the playwright, and this playwright’s MASTERPIECE: OTHELLO.

    Having seen the same production (TWICE!), I marvel at your curt and nasty dismissal of this wonderful and moving production. (I am also fairly confused by your 3 out of 5 rating after your unbelievably scathing words about it. I have to presume a 1 out of 5 rating from you would read like a death threat to cast and crew.)

    I give your review a 1 dog out of 5 (You get the 1 because your dogs are undeniably cute.) 🙂


    • ozdachs says:

      Re: It was a GREAT production of OTHELLO!… (what were YOU watching?)

      Thanks for your passionate response and defense of what you like. I am fairly isolated in not liking Dan Donohue’s Iago, I admit. Maybe I’ve seen him use the same acting techniques (voice, movements) too many times for them to reach me in this production.

      I am not sure you understood my comments about the journey or
      processed my many positive notes. But, I am glad that the OSF production moved you to defend it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: It was a GREAT production of OTHELLO!… (what were YOU watching?)

        For what it’s worth, I seem to split the difference between the two of you. I think I enjoyed the individual performances more than you did, ozdachs, but I agree with you that the other elements of the production (directing, lighting, sound, scenic…) were rather disjointed.

        (Also fwiw, I pointed people to your reviews on my own site, http://www.ashlandlink.com. I really enjoy your perspective!)


        ~ John

        • ozdachs says:

          Re: It was a GREAT production of OTHELLO!… (what were YOU watching?)

          Thanks for the commenting and for compliment.

          Sometimes I think we like OSF/Ashland so much and we’ve met the actors on the street and like them as people that it’s hard to be objective when we see the plays. Maybe I go overboard the other way to compensate, but I was disappointed in acting in Othello.

          BTW, I couldn’t find the link you used on your site, but if you pointed people to http://ozdachs.livejournal.com/tag/plays they’ll see only play reviews and not other comments.

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