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Double-Edged Drama

[whitespace] Robert Jason Jackson, Lise Bruneau and Ursula Meyer
Greg Pio

Strange Bedfellows: Shakespeare Santa Cruz's trio of jealous players (Robert Jason Jackson, back, Lise Bruneau and Ursula Meyer) fall victim to Iago's deceptive ways in 'Othello.'

Deception abounds with SSC's handsomely mounted production of Othello

By Christina Waters

IT'S AN EYEFUL, this smoothly produced version of Shakespeare's tale of the powerful outsider, Othello the Moor, whose downfall becomes the pet project of his bitter underling, Iago. Director Michael Edwards has taken a nimble cast and transformed it into a purring machine of action sequences, believable duels and brawls, invisible scene changes and, with a few exceptions, clear diction.

Edwards' directorial skill in the past has been especially effective in placing productions into cultural contexts that illuminate the text's subtler points. In the current production of Othello, he has chosen the Victorian colonial twilight at the end of the 19th century, using the trappings of a fading empire, the Raj perhaps, to resonate with the Venetian renaissance rampage of the East. In such a setting, the otherness of Othello, a black man in a brazenly white world, could accentuate the poignancy of his love with the pale, lovely Desdemona, as well as the angry machinations of the brilliant but bypassed Iago. Such poignancy eludes this production.

Once again, the stellar mechanics of stage presence and believability belong to Paul Whitworth, whose Iago is a whirlwind of malicious subplots, emotional torture and eloquent lies. Purporting the tragedy of Othello--who "loved not wisely but too well"--the play focuses on jealousy and deceit through the figure of Iago, whose giant portion of this late Shakespearean work is spent fanning the flames of the "green-eyed monster." Whitworth, with an occasional Cockney accent, churns up each juicy bit of mistaken motive and then metaphorically claps his hands with glee at the resulting human wreckage.

The stagecraft is capably served by a cunningly decorated set--the work of designer Dipu Gupta--in which the in-the-round environment is wonderfully used. Plants drop from the ceiling with split-second timing to create a lush, tropical atmosphere. An Oriental fountain blooms from center stage, a scrim of bamboo creates concealed walkways for actors, and the dominant red color is both visually provocative and prophetic of the bloodshed to come.

A scene with Whitworth, en route to setting up young Cassio (William Hulings), who will in turn set up Othello (Robert Jason Jackson) for the denouement in which he wrongly believes Desdemona (Lise Bruneau) to have betrayed him, is a little gem. Getting Cassio and some cronies drunk, Iago fans the raucous mood into ugliness by singing a lewd barroom ditty, accompanying himself on mandolin. Not only does Whitworth, as usual, appear to be the only person on stage who actually understands the words he's saying, he appears to orchestrate all other onstage action like an eloquent tour guide.

Unfortunately most of this production has been played for laughs. The 19th-century setting aids the impression that we're watching an ironic vaudeville production. Desdemona acts as Gibson girl, all bouncy exterior, no substance--she and Othello are each other's trophy mates. One thoroughly expects Whitworth to twist the ends of an imaginary fake mustache in a stock gesture of villainy.

As the house of cards begins to fall, Iago reveals, "I am not what I am," and he tells each character a lie that will ensnare another. Iago obviously enjoys the sport, yet for it to be tragic, we need to know why. Shakespeare gives us too little motive for Iago's rage, and the production's frenetic, almost comic scampering to and fro does little to reveal any emotional depth, much less revelation of the frail and vulnerable nature of love.

With the exception of Desdemona, her maid Emilia (Ursula Meyer) and Othello--played capably by Jackson except when he raises his voice and gargles his lines--the actors appear to be putting a postmodern spin on the play. There's lots of squeaking delivery, eye-rolling and physical comedy, as if we're watching a silent-movie melodrama. The effect is a cast divided, some playing it straight and attempting to recover the text's original power, the others going for some comment upon a dated text in which daggers and duels, much less murder and revenge, can't possibly be taken seriously. Audience engagement is sacrificed in this conflict between dramatic strategies.

The current production is handsome, and while the second portion has some huge holes--a scene between the two women practically amounts to a freeze frame--it moves crisply through its three hours. Yet in the end we don't much care who ends up dead on that couch.

Othello plays in repertory through Sept. 5 at the Performing Arts Theatre, UC-Santa Cruz. For info, call 459-2159.

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From the August 6-12, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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