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Othello without intermission

On Thursday, we saw Shakespeare & Company’s Othello, in Lenox, Ma. We go frequently to see that company’s productions, but this one was special. In fact, I didn’t want it to have an intermission. The play is too relentless. You know where it’s going (especially if, ahem, you re-read it the day before) and you just want it to get there, to be over, to let you go. It is a play with no distractions and no subplots. (This production wisely dropped the Clown who has a couple of scenes of witty-but-now-incomprehensible Elizabethan badinage.) The plot ticks, but its engine is Othello’s prodigious will. As soon as Iago suggests that Othello shouldn’t suspect Desdemona without proof, you know that “proof” will be forthcoming, and Othello will be unstoppable. Only an intermission stands in his way.

The first half of the play is Iago’s. Iago knows everyone better than they know themselves. Including the audience. Iago is the one who addresses us directly. We may not be on his side, but we are in his world. The second half is Othello’s. But at the end, the play belongs to the women. Desdemona sees clearly. And her maiden (Iago’s wife), Emilia, is a fierce teller of truths and the bravest person on the stage. For all the talk of heroism and military feats, the only truly heroic act Shakespeare shows us is Emilia’s.

I thought the acting surpassed Shakespeare & Co.’s usual high standard. Michael Hammond was a believable Iago. He took Iago’s hatred as a given. Hammond instead convinced us that his power was based on his ability to see into those he used. John Douglas Thompson’s Othello I found harder to appreciate because of the extremes to which his character is pushed: He’s a hard-won general and a charming teller of tales who rapidly is reduced to writhing on the floor. But the depth of his feeling for the woman he kills was apparent. Merritt Janson was a perfect Desdemona. Kristin Wold was a fearsome, riveting Emilia. LeRoy McClain added immeasurably to the play by giving us a sympathetic, rounded Cassio. This was a hell of a production.

And, boy, could that Shakespeare guy write!

Michael Hammond blogs about Iago, painting him as the consummate actor. He adds:

I am also inclined to suspect that by presenting a character so ingenious in his ability to inspire and manipulate others, Shakespeare was offering those who mistrusted or even hated the theatre their worst nightmare.

Given Iago’s understanding of how the world looks to each character, perhaps he’s also the consummate playwright.

Here’s the NY Times’ review. He liked JThompson’s performance a bit more than I did — although he makes a good case and is probably right — and he failed to glow enough over Hammond’s Iago. And here’s the WSJ’s review. [Tags: ]

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