Hartford Stage, Hartford
As to the three-hour-long “Othello” which has just opened at Hartford Stage, there’s good news and bad news.
On the plus side, director Karin Coonrod has experimented boldly with this Shakespearean tragedy. For example, her stage is bare, with each scene shaped merely by the use of stage lights. Not that lighting doesn’t always create theater ambience. But here they are the lights themselves which become the sets. Credit goes also to the lighting designer Justin Townsend. The result is a stark and startling effect, which harks back to Greek tragedy.
But other Coonrod experiments are less successful, as in the use of unflattering modern clothes and silly paper-like hats. Scenes meant to be serious are unhappily transformed into a children’s birthday party. No wonder the audience erupts at times into inappropriate guffaws. Whatever “Othello” is meant to be or not be, it is not a comedy.
Even more disappointing is the casting, for which we hold both Coonrod and Jack Doulin (who is listed in the program for casting) accountable. Firdous Bamji, who plays Othello, is a skilled actor who handles the character’s range of emotions. But his is not a larger-than-life Othello, a warrior of great stature and dignity. He must battle his own physical limitations, since this Othello is hardly taller than his Desdemona. But a great actor could surely rise above such restrictions. Desdemona herself is played by the radiant Danielle Skraastad, Gordana Rashovich is solid as her maid Emilia, Nafe Katter as her father Brabantio is a thorough-going pro, and Christopher Michael Rivera is an appealing Cassio. As to others, let us just say that the casting is uneven.
But it is to David Patrick Kelly we must turn for a fascinating performance. His Iago commands the stage and keeps the three-hour drama alive, from his first moments of devious plotting to his ultimate demise. He puts his own stamp on this Iago. Small and stooped, he scuttles about the stage like a crab, manipulating victims who are no match for his oily, slimy machinations. Here is evil incarnate, thanks to Kelly.
We must confess that our views are colored by a long-held irritation with “Othello.” The play itself has its weaknesses. Why indeed, we have wondered, doesn’t Othello get wise to Iago? Why doesn’t this worldly military leader do a real check on the handkerchief story? But then one might make the same criticisms of his other plays. Why didn’t Romeo get to the vault in time? One accepts the theatrical conventions of a Shakespearean drama for its soaring poetry, its characters, its human insights, its strong story lines. “Othello” at times, even this “Othello,” has all of these.
-- Irene Backalenick
April 15, 2005