The production of “Othello” playing at the Whitney Humanities Center strikes a delicate balance between traditional Shakespeare and recent high-gloss, high-concept film adaptations, including Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet” and last year’s “Hamlet” with Ethan Hawke. By trimming off the flabbiness of period finery, director Christopher Sanderson of The Gorilla Repertory Theater redirects the focus of the show back to where it rightly belongs, on the words themselves and the characters they conjure.
Inevitably, the heart of any production is its Othello, and in that role, Reginald Austin ’01 gives a finely tuned performance. His relaxed charisma seems to spread to the atmosphere, creating a halo of serenity around him as he moves through the turbulent world of Venice and later, the violent fortress at Cypress.
But this calmly credulous nature proves a liability when faced with the unmitigated evil of Iago, the disgruntled inferior who deceives him into believing that his wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful. It also creates difficulties for Austin as an actor. Given the placidity of his Othello at the start, Austin seems to have difficulty making the full transition to the inexorable flood of emotion that leads Othello to unforeseen extremes of violence and revenge. The tenderness that undercuts his brutality toward Desdemona increases the complexity of his character, but it makes it difficult to believe that he would be driven to such lengths.
When faced with Iago’s evidence against Desdemona, Othello, new to love, is easily taken in by Iago (David Blasher ’01), who literally talks circles around his general. His physical movement evokes a snake as he weaves his way through the story, poisoning innocent and passionate love with carefully rationed insinuations. Flexible in speech, body and morals, Blasher is brilliant and funny. His Iago is a sexy, scandalous figure whose charm makes it plausible that he should so beguile Othello, a figure of authority who ought to know better. The one problem with Blasher’s performance is that his speech occasionally speeds up to the point of incomprehensibility, and it seems a Herculean effort for him to just get them out without garbling.
Confronted with this show of masculine force, the women of the show rise to the occasion. Desdemona (Tracy Appleton ’01) is gentle but strong. Her protests to her husband’s leering accusations of infidelity are wounded, but steadfast and dignified. As her friend and Iago’s wife, Emelia (Desiree Burch ’01) is not the weak, cowering wench of some productions, but an earthy, grounded, sensible woman who clearly means it when she says that her friend’s framers ought to be “lashed naked through the world.”
The supporting actors are also excellent. As Desdemona’s jealous, frenzied father, James Luse is a force, though he plays mainly for laughs. Striding around the stage in a ridiculous get-up, perspiration glistening on his forehead, spittle spraying from his mouth, Luse is mesmerizing. He makes it easy to understand why Desdemona would desert the cacophony of her childhood home for the haven of Othello’s protection. As Cassio, the lieutenant whose promotion sparks Iago’s ire, Walter Brandes avoids sinking into victimized anonymity, instead preserving his character’s integrity as a guileless soldier. In a pink frock and running shoes, Lisa Limor Rabie ’01 delivers a solid performance as Cassio’s constant pursuer, Bianca. Last year, Rabie was Performing and Fine Arts Editor of the Yale Daily News.
The focus on the essential elements of the play does not mean that it is visually boring. Designer Terence Leong’s costumes are witty, flexible and well-chosen for each character. The set is simple and low-tech, but bright — the motif seems to be “ghetto-carnival.” Powerful flashlights work just as well as professional spotlights to highlight actors on balconies, and a large cotton cream-colored curtain works well as a minimal divider of space and time. But the curtain did create problems, as actors opened and closed it during speeches, including the essential speech at the end of Act 5, in which Othello confronts his own guilt. “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,” was completely drowned out by the whirring noise.
In spite of these minor hang-ups, the stellar acting makes this show an “Othello” worth seeing.