Director Barry Edelstein from New York’s Shakespeare in the Park makes his debut at the Old Globe choosing Othello since it hasn’t been seen on this stage in a while. He felt that eight of the characters have “… tremendously juicy roles,” and intuition told him these roles would “… create opportunities for really interesting actors to come and do really interesting work.” And the play does draw interesting actors.
Percussive music ushers in Iago (Richard Thomas), with the cast hitting sticks together and pounding rods on the floor. With Thomas’s grand entrance he makes his presence known and never lets you forget he is a lovely scoundrel. He arrogantly lights a small cigar then throws the match in the air. Despicable, he has everyone do his dirty work like the devil. Roderigo, played by Jonny Orsini, is first to fall victim as Thomas goads him to tell Brabantio (Mike Sears) of his daughter’s marriage to Othello. Thomas hides in the dark while using guttural language to get Brabantio riled up and the audience laughing. One entertaining moment happens during a party. While the men drink and dance with their women the world freezes. Thomas continues the music with sounds of the beat strutting on stage. While he dances he pours more wine in the cup of Cassio (Noah Bean) in hopes to cause a fight between him and Roderigo. At the end of the freeze he thrusts his hips with a “Pow!” The music and dancing continue. He repeats this a few times, becoming more obnoxious.
Thomas lies to the face of Othello (Blair Underwood), who is a good and honest man, assuming Thomas’s Iago is the same. Underwood’s accent finds itself in the Caribbean, which is a bit odd for a Moor, but close enough. He says “Desdemona" in an appetizing, thunderous, gravelly voice. Underwood’s Othello is all consuming in his love for Desdemona, played by Kristen Connolly, as he repeatedly kisses her lips with no awareness to all around. This true love is ripped apart by Thomas’s manipulative opinions that Underwood insists on hearing. When Underwood’s Othello is distraught he has a seizure that is captivating as he scatters his words and moves his hands while gazing wide eyed into middle space showing the world whirling around him.
Kristen Connolly’s Desdemona is sweet and kind, and she doesn’t suspect Othello’s change of heart. Underwood’s Othello begins to strangle her in public. She falls to the floor gasping for air when Montano, played by Kushtrim Hoxha, attempts to aid her, but she taps her hand in the air to signal to stay out of this quarrel. It’s a tragic ending for Desdemona, and Connolly’s gripping death brings gasps from the audience.
The set design by Wilson Chin consists of walls and desks and other furniture brought on by actors. A few of the scenes utilize two silver walls that roll onto the stage. The walls look like they are covered in tin foil with a well-done finish. Part of the set design includes the live music.
Jonathan Hepfer and Ryan Nestor (music director), musicians housed in the veranda, typically used for the actors in the past, play an array of percussive instruments. Curtis Moore’s original music creates a sense of urgency. Being able to see the musicians adds excitement to the show.
Costume designer Katherine Roth dresses Kristen Connolly in unassuming Edwardian dresses. One dress is blocked in fuchsia. Another is a see-through robin’s egg blue over muslin. The men are dressed in military uniforms with long coats and high collars over black, tall boots and vests.
In the past, The Old Globe’s Shakespeare Festival has been three productions in repertory with one of the shows relating or not relating to Shakespeare. This year Edelstein withdrew the non-Shakespeare play and separated the two remaining shows as it had been a decade ago. With three large productions sharing the stage the set design had to quickly come down for the next night’s rotating show or the three shows would have to compromise. Many times reoccurring actors were seen in all three productions. This year there are two separate casts. Another noticeable change is the sound system. When airplanes fly over, the actors are heard clearly.
With all the changes it’s still the same great performances at The Old Globe’s Shakespeare Festival. Edelstein’s production of Othello provides tragedy, humor, music and rich performances.