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Photo courtesy Shakespeare Santa Cruz
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD FRIENDS: Othello (Corey Jones, right) is tricked by a scheming Iago (Victor Talmadge) in 'Othello,' running through Aug. 29.

Full of Sound and Fury

Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Othello' packs some good acting but lacks coherence

By Christina Waters

OTHELLO," which opened Aug. 6 at Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the Festival Glen, is a bold and tragic tale of "one that loved not wisely but too well." Othello, a celebrated black general of Venice (played with physical power by Corey Jones), has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio, a senator of Venice. "It is too much of joy," Othello admits, finding himself newly married and assigned to defend Cyprus against the Turks. The plot thickens quickly on the wings of brilliant writing as news of the promotion of a lieutenant, Cassio (Richard Prioleau), reaches the overlooked commander Iago (Victor Talmadge). Cassio famously plots his revenge for this perceived insult by turning Othello first against Cassio, and then against his new bride, by planting Desdemona's handkerchief on Cassio, whereby it is "discovered," and with it the fictional adultery as well.

Everything in Othello depends upon our loathing the villainous Iago and cheering the loving couple, Othello and his Desdemona. We know that this is a tale that cannot end well, but in order for it to captivate us, we must have some clear markers of the deep bitterness gnawing at Iago and of Othello's conflicts as a defender of Venice who is also a man in love. As consummate as is much of the acting, and as swift as is the pace of this production, there seemed a crucial absence of coherence among the actors and their text that prevented the source of Iago's sadism from surfacing. Some incoherence might be traced to the absence of a set, without which the drama, directed by Pam MacKinnon, never quite pulls together visually.

Nor does the costuming generate any sense of drama, intrigue or time signature. In true postmodern style, we might be anywhere, watching any random intersection of people from any time and any place. Military uniforms identify the lieutenants of Venice, while a series of blatantly unattractive gowns are modeled by Green's statuesque Desdemona. It is unclear why Marion Adler as Emelia (Desdemona's maid and Iago's wife) is clothed in military khaki, but all these choices blur the potency of words and deeds.

As Iago, Victor Talmadge needs to be the poisonous engine powering Shakespeare's great tale of duplicity and emotional exploitation. Yet we are given no point of access or insight—we simply do not understand his motivation. Why is he so intent upon betraying the great general? Can it simply be the lack of promotion? Is it a personal racism? Something more? We cannot gain any traction, since Talmadge's matter-of-fact delivery prevents nuance or sting of Schadenfreude. The audience had little idea how to engage with the words or the action onstage. So they responded to the surfaces offered, the gestures and the shouting, by laughing at all the wrong moments, as if they were watching a sitcom on TV.

The final scene, fueled by shouted dialogue and the visual distraction of grimaces and outstretched palms woven through Green's technique, lacked the required sense of horror. One last-minute exception appeared in the valiant and persuasive speech by Adler, Iago's horrified wife, upon discovering the full weight of her husband's deception.

At least in this early performance, Othello never fully materialized in the magical somewhere of the redwood glen. It's entirely possible that a melodramatic Elizabethan tragedy finds decreasing sympathy and traction in a postmodern world of slick surfaces and quick consumption. The brilliant play itself seemed confined to a limbo just off-stage, waiting to be brought to life.

OTHELLO runs through Aug. 29 in the Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen, UCSC, Santa Cruz. For schedule visit Tickets $33–$49 at 831.459.2159.

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