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Othello.

Othello

Presented by the Northwestern CollegeTheatre at the Dewitt Theatre Arts Center, Orange City, Iowa. February 20, 21, 25-28, 2009. Directed by Robert Hubbard. Set by Ethan Koerner. Costumes by Kelly Holtom. Lighting by Hannah Lois Marielle Sauerwein. Sound by Baylie Helms. Fights by April Hubbard and Dan Laird. With Tony Wilder (Othello), Ana Pitney (Desdemona), Ben Bees (Iago), Brady Greer Huffman (Cassio), Hannah McBride (Emilia), Kailen Fleck (Roderigo), Amanda June Bracklein (Duke), Brandon Assman (Brabantio), Andrew Stare (Gratiano), Kylie Steinbach (Bianca), Dan Laird (Puppet Master), and others.

Macbeth

Presented by the Morningside College Department of Theatre and Dance at the Klinger Neal Theatre, Sioux City, Iowa. February 18, 19, and 21, 2009. Directed by Arthur Moss. Set by Arthur Moss. Costumes by Bette Skewis-Arnett. Lighting by Beau Sudtelgte. Sound and fights by Arthur Moss. With David Kenan (Macbeth), Trey K. Blackburn (Banquo), Katie Gorden (Lady Macbeth, Messenger), Paul Guggenheimer (Duncan, Seward), Tyrel Drey (Macduff), Mac Deeds (Malcolm), Jamie Greenlee (Donalbain), April Parkinson (Lady Macduff), Jacob Sandvick (Lennox), Michael Bryant (Ross), Nate Sadler (Angus), Phoebe Smith (Doctor), Tanya Anderson (Hecate), Geana Schneider, Athena Risenberg, and Maddie Mardesen (Witches), and others.

Othello and Macbeth are both plays with title characters who undergo transformations with tragic consequences; in each the audience shares a level of complicity with the decisions that the main characters make. In Othello we can blame Iago's boundless evil, but Iago speaks to us and with his wit and humor makes us complicit in his actions. In Macbeth, Macbeth's wife may taunt his lack of manliness, but we see the witches and may believe that he grasps after power that has been fated his. Two recent student productions in Iowa shifted the focus of these plays slightly. Neither production chose a specific time and place for the action; these were not productions commenting on Nazi Germany, or the war in Iraq, or upheavals in Eastern Europe. But, in both cases, the productions had a whiff of militarism that may be impossible to escape in 2009--or perhaps impossible to escape in these two plays.

The 2009 Northwestern College Theatre production of Othello presented an uncut text on an elaborate set. The thrust stage in the black box theatre included a small stream that divided the downstage, more private space from the upstage, public space where the Duke and his senators heard Brabantio's case and where Montano welcomed the newly arrived to Cyprus. This arrangement effectively created close-ups for the most private and wrenching scenes in the play. There were wrenching scenes in this production primarily because Tony Wilder (Othello) was good, really good. When he first walked on stage, he looked and felt like a general. In his long (uncut) description of wooing Desdemona he was a man deeply in love. The Duke's, "I think this speech would win my daughter, too" seemed to put into words the audience's response. Othello and Desdemona were so well matched in youth and attractiveness that the objections to their match could only rest on questions of race, not age. This production, soon after the US presidential inauguration, in a state that had been a firm and early backer of the winning candidate, may have depended on the audience's sympathy for Othello as a natural leader. Regardless, Tony Wilder didn't need external circumstances.

The elaborate set fit with what seemed to be the director's desire to articulate things in the play which might otherwise be abstract or metaphorical. The production included performances by interpretive dancers and a large, complex puppet figure. At times, the inclusion of these extra performers crowded the stage. The addition of dancers to Othello's description of the wooing of Desdemona might have helped to illustrate some of Othello's actions if his speech had needed illustration. The dancers, both male and female, wore sleek form fitting costumes and moved to accompany Othello's descriptions. The director may have underestimated his Othello or his audience. Othello was upstage and it seemed that most audience members were watching him rather than the downstage dancers. An elaborate green puppet (operated by two, sometimes three, puppeteers) acted as audience for Iago's soliloquies. Although the director's statement in the program makes a point of the "susceptibility to infection" from "contaminants of insecurity, jealousy, and obsession," the puppet figure made external what otherwise would be internal. This play centers in important ways on internal changes and infectious ideas; Iago addressing his soliloquies to this personification of obsession caused the audience oddly to be less complicit in the provocation of Othello. The link frequently forged, I think, between Iago and the audience, did not seem to function in this production. The puppet figure did allow the production itself to comment on Othello's state. Although it usually appeared only to Iago, when it did appear to Othello, it made explicit his mental turmoil. In the moments when Othello was so confused as to nearly be nonsensical, this Othello made apparent to the audience that he functioned within a reality that had its own logic. For the most part, Othello's confusions were conveyed through his fines, all of which made sense--even those that do not: "Goats and monkeys!"

Although the production was not set in a particular year, it was set in the era of mobile telephones and text messaging. When Roderigo and Iago planned to rouse Brabantio, Roderigo offered to call, and added, as he pulled out his cell phone "I have his number." The messengers to the Duke and the senators reported their news from their handheld devices. These modern touches faded, however, as soon as the action moved to Cyprus. Perhaps the characters' phone plans didn't extend that far; or perhaps the change was meant to emphasize the alienation and isolation that occurs for these characters on that island.

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In another instance of literal interpretation, when Roderigo threatened to "incontinently drown myself" Kailen Fleck threw himself into the shallow stream. Iago's response to Roderigo's despair made sense of the lines, although not in a manner usually staged: his question, "Drown thyself?." was accompanied by his forcing Roderigo's head under the water. His physical threatening and bullying here made less surprising Iago's later actions against Roderigo. Roderigo spent most of his time sneaking around the edges of the stage, a camera always slung over his shoulder when it wasn't in use. The revelation of Roderigo's multiple photographs of Desdemona made explicit his "stalker" behavior and made clear why this Roderigo did not himself directly approach Desdemona.

The full-text version of the play served Desdemona particularly well in her arrival on Cyprus. The bantering between Iago and Desdemona revealed her wit and lightness of humor in ways I hadn't realized were missing in other productions that trim these lines. And, the exchange established even more strongly the subsequent perfidy of Iago's attempt to comfort the weeping Desdemona in 4.2. Desdemona's disillusionment contrasted with her fair appearance and naivete in a believable way, and the audience seemed truly touched by the willow song. The play poses a real problem for an actor here: how can she continue to believe in Othello without appearing stupid? Anna Pitney managed it by being light, lovely, and, most of all, likeable.

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After arriving in Cyprus, Othello delivered his lines "If it were now to die / 'Twere now to be most happy" literally at a height, as he and Desdemona stood at the crest of the bridge over the stream downstage. Dancers celebrating that the "Turks are drowned" added to the festive atmosphere as Iago and Emilia maintained an uneasy truce upstage. The costumes helped establish Emilia as a commonsensical woman frustrated with a husband she neither trusted nor understood. The men's uniforms made them look suitably potent. The officials did not fare as well in their costumes; Brabantio needed clothing that would have established his position and dignity--his business suit did not accomplish that end.

The play's final scene occurred on a litter-like bed brought into the downstage space. Thus, the bedroom downstage was separated from the outside world upstage by the stream and bridged by, well, the bridge. Othello was behind Desdemona as he reached around and smothered her. The position of the players ensured that the audience wasn't left with the image of this large strong black man straddling his victim on the bed, but it made the struggle awkward and also meant that Othello was not in fact covering from his own sight the face that had so recently wept. Tony Wilder's demeanor so firmly maintained Othello's soldierly status, even through the last acts of the play, that the audience did not need his reminder that he had "done the state some service."

In the Morningside College production, Macbeth too looked like someone with a military background. He descended into the bloody business of the play in a manner that managed to give the impression that these actions were related to his previous war experience. Although Duncan praises Macbeth's "honour," the Captain's description of Macbeth's "brandished steel / Which smoked with bloody execution" prepared the audience for an experienced warrior. The simple set used a painted floor to establish a circular center point for the action. This arrangement emphasized Lady Macbeth's solitary reading of Macbeth's letter; she sat with a candle stick on the floor and burnt the letter after reading it. This hint of espionage fit well with the various murders surreptitiously organized later in the play. The semi-circular set with cut-outs of branched trees on the highest riser made visually present the inevitable arrival of Birnam Wood. Like the Northwestern College Othello, this Macbeth did not rely on a specific period for its militarism. Instead, the thanes wore cloak-like robes, but Macbeth, Macduff, and Banquo carried themselves in a way that conveyed their loyalties to military ideas.

The witches' scenes were heavily cut, which surprisingly made them all the more disconcerting. The frequency of the appearances of the witches in the early parts of the play, I think, serves to integrate the supernatural into the play. This production emphasized the natural rather than the supernatural. The three witches were clad in loose, hooded burlap robes and these faceless entities acted as ciphers. If Banquo had not seen them, we might have thought they did not exist at all, but were only figments of Macbeth's disordered perceptions. After the witches vanished, Macbeth turned to Banquo, still staring after them, and broke the spell by saying "Boo!" When Lady Macbeth taunted her husband, he responded as if it drove him onward, but this Macbeth didn't seem to be driven primarily by his interactions with his wife. Instead, the production relied on the chilling effect of the minimally present witches to drive Macbeth's actions.

The set used no moveable properties, which made for an unusual staging of the banquet scene. The dining was staged behind the three levels of risers upstage and effectively removed any chance of the audience seeing the banqueters' response to Macbeth. Macbeth and Banquo's ghost moved downstage and Lady Macbeth remained the link between that pair and the men dining upstage. Macbeth's transformations were experienced more by the theatre audience and much less by his dinner guests. This minimized the chaos that can sometimes result in this scene, and also made Lady Macbeth's interventions much less important. The banqueters did not as clearly see how very strangely Macbeth was acting, so there was much less than there might have been for her to apologize for. In some ways this staging reduced the importance of her role and may have aided the impression that she had less to do with Macbeth's actions. Lady Macduff managed to balance the oddities of her scene in a way that made sense of taunting her own son. To some extent, I suppose, she was kicking the dog when she was mad at her husband, but her fears seemed real and her abandonment frightening. In what was probably an accidental moment of pathos, the shoe of the young Macduff child fell off and landed on the riser when he was swept up and, fighting back, carried off stage. There it remained for the next scene when Macduff heard of the deaths of his wife and children and a departing actor smoothly picked it up and carried it offstage.

The heavy cutting of this already short play made it move very quickly, and produced a play that made a great deal of narrative sense, but lacked some of the ambiguities that appear in the full text. Unexpectedly, the cuts to the witches' roles highlighted the militarism of the play and I think made it more contemporary. At least, we might consider it more contemporary, if we worry more about our leaders' lust for power and less about prophecy-producing witches appearing to them in dark woods.

DARLENE FARABEE, University of South Dakota
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Title Annotation:Macbeth
Author:Farabee, Darlene
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
Words:2139
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