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“Othello” — A Classical Representation with a Twist

By Ernest Kearney  —  Of all Shakespeare’s plays save Hamlet, Othello offers the most challenges to any cry of players, while also demanding they travel a similar path.

Both are revenge plays.

Both are set in the uncertainty of nations at war.

Both center on, as do most of Shakespeare’s plays, a child’s attempt at rebellion against the wishes of a father figure.

Both test the titular character’s ability to resist the exhortations of evil; in Hamlet, those of the Ghost — in Othello, Iago’s insinuations.

Written around 1603 *writer's hand *, Othello was one of Shakespeare’s latter works as well as one of his last great tragedies with only King Lear (1605) and Macbeth (1606) to follow.

But of all of the Bard’s great tragedies, Othello stands alone.

In Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, the drama stems from the failure of the central characters when faced with an ethical challenge.

But in Othello, the moral crucible is not that of the Moor’s alone.  Of the thirteen major roles in the play, seven are faced with an ethological dilemma, which they are overwhelmed by; Othello’s being the most spectacular of those failures.

Whereas in his other works Shakespeare explores the tragedy of an individual’s failure upon his society, in Othello he explores the tragedy of a failed society on its individual members.

It is only Desdemona who succeeds in rising above the temptations and compulsions of her lesser angels.  The resolution of her righteousness to achieve this establishes her as Shakespeare’s anti-Hamlet, while the fortitude of her character to refuse to succumb to the baseless assaults which topples her world or yield to incomprehensible brutality that devastates her happiness assures her the position of the anti-Ophelia.

Of Shakespeare’s galaxy of characters, none possess the nobility of Desdemona, nor, perhaps, offers a more potent example to our own troubled times.

For these reasons, and a thousand others, Othello has always been a problematic play to produce, and so the Griot Theatre of the West Valley is to be given credit for undertaking it.

Director Malik B. El-Amin, who also takes on the role of the Moor, has stripped away the usual exotic and elaborate trappings of Othello, setting it in an “East Asian dystopian future” as well as trimming down the “masks of the drama” to seven; the result being double-casted actors working on the barest of bare stages.

For all the self-imposed limitations, El-Amin and company succeed in mounting an appreciable production that displays craftsmanship in the staging and merit overall, foremost being in its accessibility to its audience.

In dealing with the hefty themes of racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and repentance that Othello places before any cast, the Griot company performs skillfully if not perfectly.

Hazel Lozano as a gender-swapped Iago carries the most weight.  Except for Hamlet and Richard III, Iago is the longest role Shakespeare ever penned, perhaps indicative of the playwright’s struggle to understand the nature of evil.

And I’ve no doubt, even at 1,098 lines, Shakespeare himself would acknowledge he doesn’t come close to scratching the surface.

This places an unbearable burden on the actor in the part.  Lozano, to her credit, carries the role, but unfortunately brings no insight into it.

The performers with lighter demands of the narrative manage better.  Napoleon Tavale as the dissolute Rodrigo and Cesar Cipriano as the upright Cassio each have their moments to shine.  Cipriano demonstrates a strong physical presence which would have played better if time had been taken to counterpoint it against Cassio’s weakness: vis-a-vis the enemy men put in their mouths “to steal away their brains!”

Evie Abat also has moments as Brabantio, Desdemona’s mother/father and as Emilia, Iago’s unknowing partner in crime.

Paul Wong, who we last enjoyed in Pacific Overtures, is the work horse of the production filling three roles with admirable aplomb.

El-Amin juggles the responsibilities of Director and Lead better than most I’ve seen who have attempted it, but that does not mean the production, or his performance has not suffered for the effort.

As Othello he displays exceptional control of the stage, expressing the Moor’s prowess in delivering touchless knockouts through his mastery of chi martial arts. El-Amin infuses his role with a commanding presence, however it is his command of the language where a problem arises.


A quick sidebar is needed here; the mission statement of the Griot Theatre is to involve
women, artists of color, and artists with physical disabilities.”


This is a gallant intention, but involvement does not negate the need for awareness.  El-Amin is himself a wearer of a cochlear implant to overcome his hearing impairment, however greater attention needed to be paid to his diction which slipped into moments of murkiness encumbering his powerful vocal facilities and undercutting an otherwise strong performance.

Though El-Amin sidesteps the usual pitfalls of assuming the hats of Director/Actor in this production, he is unable to elude a hazard of his own making.

When placing your actors on the proverbial “blank space,” and more so in cases requiring double casting, the intensity of the actor’s commitment to their roles is the salvation of your staging, and the heightening of their partnering the foundation of its success.

As an old mentor of mine once remarked,
“Relationships make great theatre, screw the painted muslin.”

I once saw a mounting of Arthur Miller’s The Price at one of L.A.’s most respected venues that boasted a cast consisting of four superb actors with storied careers behind them, each of whom gave a performance worthy of being placed atop a pedestal.

But to thrive, theatre requires a stage not a pedestal, and the director of this production was, unfortunately, unable to bring about the cohesion or enforce the commitment of a cast in rebellion to save this staging from being a disaster only slightly less spectacular than the crash of the Hindenburg.

Even the stronger performances of this Othello seem to hang in isolation, smothering the work’s inherit energy and misplaying the only ace this production held.

The right director, working from the exterior of the stage, could have addressed this defect, a defect that only one of the actors on stage overcomes.

The character of Desdemona is placed in a reality that is striving for her destruction from the first moments of play, a malevolent reality that begins to malign the truth of her nature with the bitterness of her father’s forewarning to Othello:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see.
She hath deceived her father and may thee.

In the end, however, Desdemona prevails over the injustice of the fate she suffers with the same profound decency that even causes Iago to briefly falter in his course.

As Desdemona, Alexandra Hellquist brings to the stage a passion of exquisite intensity which serves to create the necessary partnering to bind her to every actor she shares the stage with, as well as deepening the commitment to her roles to such an extent that I needed to refer to my program to assure myself it was the same actress when she briefly appeared in her secondary role as Bianca.

In the final analysis, the merits of this production rise above its flaws, and the staging, if perhaps uninspired, is nevertheless sturdy and intelligent attesting to the potential of El-Amin and the Griot Theatre company.

(ED Note: In Featured Image, Hazel Lozano in Othello  /  Courtesy of Griot Theatre)

 

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* writer's hand *  One reason for Shakespeare’s writing the play was to exploit the fascination of the London population with Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the ambassador of the Moroccan ruler Mulai Ahmad al-Mansurs who had come to the court of Elizabeth I in hopes of negotiating an alliance against the Spain of Philip II.

This is another nail in the coffin of all the asinine theories proclaiming Shakespeare was not the author of his plays.  (Damn, I wish those dunderwhelps would just read a book!)


Othello’s Final Weekend

October 5 — 7

Fri & Sat @ 8pm; Sun @ 4pm

Presented by

Griot Theatre

Venue:

The Actors Company

916 N. Formosa Ave

Los Angeles, CA  90046

For Tickets and More Information:

Othello



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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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  • I always appreciate reading WHY a production went wrong, not just that it did. Thanks!

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