It’s hard to quibble too much about free Shakespeare in a public park under the stars.  It’s a pleasure to join an audience, far more diverse than the average ticket buyers and theater subscribers, in rapt attention to forceful poetry. The laughter, the outbursts of frustration wrought by dramatic irony, and the gasps of recognition are every bit as fun to observe as the "traffic of our stage." "Othello" is a great choice of plays too; No director’s note is needed to argue that Shakespeare’s take on racial politics, manipulation and romantic jealousy is as timely today as the day it was first performed.

Still, knowing how strong the material is, it’s not hard to wish for a production with more luster. While it holds audience attention, trotting at a brisk pace with excellent elocution, this one is too breezy and static. There’s no sense of risk or menace, no emotional heft. It’s a tragedy that feels like a comedy, and in fact, its characters are more often laughed at than pitied for calling the satanic Iago (James Waterston), "honest."

Part of the problem here seems to be a lack of vision from director, Steve Maler. His actors, most of whom speak in their natural accents while others affect an antique faux British formality, are clad in 1940’s dress for reasons that are never made evident. They perform in front large stone-looking wall with an abstract indentation and a blue pallor, suggesting, well, very little really. His main players maintain an even level of emotion, with plenty of shouting and pacing throughout, while his supporting cast seems awkwardly restrained, never quite knowing how much improvised vocalization or freedom of movement is appropriate for the celebration of a military victory or a night out at the bar.

The standout in the cast is the talented Commonwealth veteran and Trinity Rep. member, Fred Sullivan, Jr., who brings a Jacky Gleanson-esque bluster to the role of Barbantio, the bigoted Venetian senator who demands legal action from the Duke (John McGinnis) when upon learning that his daughter Desdemona (Marianna Bassham) has taken up with Othello, (Seth Gilliam), a dark-skinned outsider. The rest are watchable enough, but never seems to swing for the rafters.

"Othello" is an exercise in seduction. The title character has overcome his status as a a distrusted minority to gain the role of general at a time of war and the hand of Desdemona, a graceful beauty from a prominent white family, viewed by Venetians as "perfection." His charm is a mix of confidence and humility that inspires his allies while driving his enemies to hysteria. The audience must love Othello in order to feel the tragedy that ensues when his passions are released from their stoic’s cage and cruelly misdirected by Iago. For his part, the wily Iago must be an even greater seducer. He must woo Barbantio’s wrath, Roderigo’s purse, Othello’s innermost trust and, most crucially, he must woo the audience, who love Othello, as accomplices in the hero’s undoing. How will he do it? Partly by being the one character who takes us into his confidence, partly because he’s just so damned clever, and partly because he revels in his work, and his glee at winning foils Othello’s disciplined restraint.

Commonwealth’s "Othello" is a bit short on seduction. Gilliam’s general is likable enough, but he’s a bit too casual and free to really be commanding or to build to a boil. Bassham’s Desdemona certainly looks the part with her blonde hair and pale, statuesque form wrapped in a golden gown, but her manner is a bit brash for an embodiment of grace. Waterston’s Iago is a bit frantic. He does a lot of cavorting, and, speaking in his voice’s upper register, he squeaks when over-excited. He does a fine job of charming his victims and convincing us of his sliminess, but what he never does, is stop and let us in. This is a problem, because you can’t really grasp what’s so powerfully frightening about Iago if you don’t fall prey to his charm.

So there are plenty of improvements to be wished for, but, in the end, it’s still "Othello," and it’s still offered for free under the stars, on a grassy lawn, in the middle of the city. It’s still not a bad way to spend an August evening in Boston.

The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s "Othello" plays on Boston Common through August 15.

About The Author

Jason Rabin is a Blast contributing editor

2 Responses

  1. jean

    I agree with much of this review with these exceptions: Fred Sullivan Jr., who plays Brabantio, had terrible text work. Acting Shakespeare 101: NEVER do you hit a negative ( CAN not , opposed to can NOT ) and equally important AVOID AVOID AVOID hitting and stressing ALL pronouns. I would expect someone with his credentials to know this and have MUCH better text work with Shakespeare. Many in the cast overlooked many Shakespeare text no-no’s which muddles the verse and intent of certain scenes and soliloquies. James Waterston was also guilty of this. I found myself asking “How did this man play Mark Antony and get a job at the Public Theater’s prestigious Shakespeare in the Park with such shoddy text work?” Not to mention very strained vocal production. I was not a fan regardless of his interpretation of Iago. He lacked the charisma as well as the dual “public Iago/private Iago” personality which makes this character work. We, the audience, must see why these other characters refer to him as “honest” and “a good man”, why they trust him and how he gains so much confidence from Othello. I felt anyone with two eyes could have seen his duplicitous nature very clearly. Why would anyone trust this Iago? The other characters come across as pretty dumb for trusting this man in the first place.
    The scene between Emilia and Iago was frustratingly weak. What an amazing opportunity to see the dynamic between these two. it’s the only time in the play we see them together. The opportunity was wasted and the handkerchief handoff lacked any power or weight. What a shame.
    Othello was quite good.

  2. Townes

    I’m relieved to find that someone had much the same reaction as I did to this; I saw the play last night and, as you said, while it WAS free Shakespeare in the park on a lovely evening, I couldn’t help but knit my brow at several of the casting decisions. Waterston was an Iago devoid of all cunning, his menacing, conspiratorial tone absented in favor of “theater-voice” projections from downstage. It’s true: this fellow shouted the soliloquies at the other end of the park and, as others have noted, he has the voice of a pubescent boy. Iago was a caricature, a villain of no depth, just the designated “bad guy” that audience knew to jeer. Seth Gilliam was fairly good though he too was unable to slow the breakneck pace of line deliveries. The nervous pace was a problem that plagued the whole production too; I noted one moment of silence lasting longer than three or four seconds in the entire play. The woman playing Desdemona was terribly miscast — this Desdemona seemed empowered, charming, and firmly in control of her marriage. More Katherine the Shrew than the obsequious, submissive prize of the great general. Amelia was well cast and, in the harrowing last scene, was the only actress who transcended her line reading and induced some genuine drama. Overall a fairly disappointing production. Waterston deflates the action with his self-conscious “Shakespeare Acting” style, ruining the most interesting character in the play by far. So in summary: a) Seth Gilliam was decent as Othello, and b) Waterston ruined the play with his amateurish delivery. Also…the crowd was MOSTLY respectful but the abundance of chairs and couples who insisted on sitting in each other’s laps like smitten middle-school children made it a bit difficult for the rest of us on blankets to see. People also got up to get food/make a call/wave to a friend/stretch/etc. with no regard for the action/actors on stage. Lastly, and perhaps most irritating, is that the audience thought they were watching a comedy. Iago gets lots of laughs for being evil incarnate and a number of people apparently thought smothering one’s wife with a pillow while in a tearful rage was HILARIOUS. That and a few people were smoking pot which, you know, I don’t care about but I did think it was a little strange to be blazing up at one of the saddest plays ever written.


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