Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Othello and Coriolanus in Ashland


TWO DIFFICULT TRAGEDIES — difficult from the point of view of successful production, I mean, not posing intellectual difficulties for the audience — drew memorable stagings at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season. Unlike the two comedies this season, The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Othello and Coriolanus were given fairly conventional, timeless and black-box settings; each served the text directly without overladen directorial interpretation, and each — like the comedies, for that matter — gained from quite strong casts.

Othello, staged in the outdoors Elizabethan Theater, was so powerful I decided, on leaving the performance, never to see it again. It just won't be necessary, not unless a personal friend's in the production. With no other stage décor than strip lights and an occasional prop (including Desdemona's all-important bed) the production seeemed to be nothing but situation and language: the text is truly brought to stage, to life.

I haven't been crediting actors on this blog recently, feeling your ability to consult the credits online is good enough (since the acting here, with minor exceptions I may get to, is consistently first-rate). But this Othello is so brilliantly set on its three principals, and they are so responsive to both Lisa Peterson's directing and Shakespeare's text, that it would be unusually irresponsible to omit them.

Peter Macon (another OSF debut) is utterly commanding in the title role, growing from the proud but engaging hero of the opening scene to the obsessed yet tragically and oddly sympathetic villain of the climax. Dan Donohue is unusually complex as Iago, thoroughly villainous yet oddly retaining a few misgivings, ultimately as tragic as Othello, because as trapped by his own decisions, by the workings-out of a situation spun completely out of control. And Sarah Rutan was interesting and engaging, not merely vulnerable and wronged, as Desdemona.

CORIOLANUS WAS EQUALLY effective (and affecting) at a different pitch. Staged in the round in the New Theater, lacking proscenium and distance, its production seemed to involve the audience more intimately: it didn't matter that the Roman tribunes and the Volscian army were so few; their ranks were swelled by the audience.

Remarkably, we saw an understudy (Brad Whitmore) in the role of Menenius; one can't imagine the regular player (Richard Elmore) would have owned the role any better. More to the point, Danforth Comins brought as much nuance and credibility as possible to the title role; Michael Elich scaled the antagonist Aufidius nicely, bringing out the parallels to the Iago-Othello opposition in that other tragedy.
Robynn Rodriguez was the Volumnia, and especially in the first act (and especially with help from Deborah Dryden's marvelous costume design) easily projected the obsessive pride and purposefulness that ultimately brings down both her son and the Roman Republic.

If I may never see another Othello, I certainly won't easily pass up another Coriolanus. I've seen two others relatively recently: a weak production, four years ago, at A Noise Within, down in Glendale; and a remarkably good production, by an all-female cast, in the Healdsburg Plaza a few summers back. The play is remarkably resilient: perhaps it's a mark of its imperfectness that a "definitive" production is less conceivable for it than for Othello.

Shakespeare: Othello and Coriolanus, running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, through Oct. 10 and Nov. 2.

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