Saturday, August 14, 2010

Notes on Othello

Sigh. What I give up for this blog!

Ok, I finally went to the Commonwealth Shakespeare production of Othello last night because, I admit, several people were begging me to. "I know I won't like it!" I kept telling them, but they said what theatre people always say in reply: "Puh-leeeeeze! We want to know what you think!"

This is what comes of actually thinking about things, I suppose. The other critics hate you, but the performers secretly - well, I understand what it's like to work your tail off and send your vision into the void, where your best hope of being understood comes from that smart, bitchy queen who writes a blog.

Anyway, back to Othello. I didn't like it. First, for the usual reason: I don't like arena Shakespeare. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the original Globe was an "outdoor" theatre - no kidding! - but it was fairly small, and intensely focused, and had no planes flying overhead. And anyway, Shakespeare played indoors a lot, and his company bought an indoor theatre as soon as they could. Maybe indoors is better. I certainly think so. Or rather, I think it's better than watching tiny, puppet-like figures (with faces like pinheads) moving stiffly on a stage four hundred feet in front of you while amplified voices shout from four hundred feet behind you, and mosquitoes suck your blood. But I guess that's just me! Zillions of people turn out every year for this strange ritual - then return to the NASCAR circuit. (Just kidding - I know they go back to Cambridge and Brookline!!)

Arena Shakespeare at its best. The actual Globe's "pit" wasn't all that much bigger than that gazebo.

I do wonder, however, why we blow hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on an extravaganza which doesn't really deliver the real thing - i.e., Shakespeare. The answer, of course, is: We do it because other cities do! To which my mother would have replied, "But if other cities jumped off a cliff, would you do that, too?" Oh, well. Fat chance the fat cats who fund this kind of thing would ever listen to a wise woman like my mother. Still, couldn't we fund two - or maybe three - shows at smaller venues for the same price, and with better results? Just a thought.

To be fair, this Othello was clearly spoken (that's not always the case). And it was free of the really stoopid interventions we now expect from the loopier denizens of the local academy. Nobody showed their tits, and of my friends' famous "ART Checklist" (leather corsets; over-amplified music; funereal set), only one - water on the stage - made its dreaded, pointless appearance.

But then there's Steven Maler, artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare, and director of these summer shows. And why, exactly, is that true? As far as I know, Maler had no record of great Shakespeare going into the job, and - let's be honest, more than a decade later, he still doesn't. (Oh, I forgot, he won an Elliot Norton Award. I stand corrected!)

Of course, Maler is sexy, and good at separating wealthy people from their money. The funny thing is, he's also pretty good at directing other playwrights - I've seen some staged readings by him that were quite strong. He just has no feel for Shakespeare; he's in precisely the wrong job. To be honest, he is great at pageant, which is no small part of arena theatre; he's a resourceful and clever orchestrator of crowds and complicated set pieces. If all of the Bard were like the opening scenes of Romeo and Juliet, he'd be in business. But Othello is practically a chamber piece (it shrinks down to a chess game between four or five people), and when it comes to the nitty-gritty, you can feel Maler's just got no Shakespearean chops at all. He rarely draws strong internal work from actors, his blocking is abstracted, and his scenes seem cleverly aimless; I keep hearing a little voice in my head going, "The beat goes there, Maler, not there!" whenever I'm watching one of his productions.

And then there's his dreadful penchant for casting under-equipped TV and movie actors in demanding Shakespearean roles. A stage actor will typically get his Shakespearean sea-legs in the part of a spear-chucker, or Second Senator From the Left. But a typical Commonwealth Shakespeare press release goes something like: "This summer Zac Efron will essay his first Shakespearean role for Steven Maler - and it's Prospero!" This year we got Seth Williams (of The Wire and Oz) as Othello, and James Waterston, whose qualifications for playing Shakespeare are, apparently, being sired by Sam Waterston and being friends with Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke (who are also eminent pseudo-Shakespeareans). For the record, Williams at least stayed afloat, though he splashed pointlessly quite a bit - until he suddenly turned in quietly moving renditions of "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul" and Othello's last moments of remorse in the play's terrible climax; I left thinking he might be able to do the role in ten or twenty years. Waterston, meanwhile, just sank. But he was in good company at the bottom of the tank. Marianna Bassham, one of my favorite local actresses, was thrashing down there too, trying to make Desdemona a kind of husky-voiced 40's siren, while Adrianne Krstansky (my other favorite local actress) worked on making Emilia alternately bitter and sleepy.

Oh, well; another evening I could have spent watching reruns of Two and a Half Men gone down the drain! But in the spirit of avoiding future bad productions of Othello, I thought I would throw out a few obvious interpretive pointers about the play. These precepts are all rooted in the text; this is what Shakespeare says, flat out; and yet directors and actors almost always ignore these guidelines, and then wonder why the play just isn't working. Of course the public wants to ignore these ideas, too; we want to "do" Shakespeare without listening to him; we'd prefer to grant ourselves the benefit of his greatness (thanks so much!), then pound him down into an enlightened, "improved" modern template - when of course he's deeper than that.

So in the interest of paying attention to the play, so that maybe it will work, here goes nothing:

Not Othello.

1) Othello is not Denzel. Or Taye.

We like our modern Othellos to be not merely hotheads, but hot bods as well. An understandable matinee-idol impulse, to be sure. Shakespeare's Othello, however, is an old soldier, weathered rather than beautiful, and engaged in an obvious May-December romance. To be blunt, if he and Desdemona are the hottest people in the room, then a key point in Shakespeare's vision has been occluded. We should never, ever expect that they would fall in love.

2) Othello has a tragic flaw beyond his jealousy.

Everyone "knows" that Othello's tragic flaw is jealousy. But he has another, secret flaw beyond that - perhaps alone among the tragic heroes, Othello is presented as psychologically unstable at the deepest level; his career, his success, his entire life is built around denying an inner terror of "chaos" that manifests itself in frightening "epilepsies." Iago's whole strategy wouldn't work without this (like Iago, Othello "is not what he is"). Therefore a corollary to this observation that I've seen manifested in the best productions is: Iago alone knows this secret about Othello; it's part of their kinship, their supposed mutual trust.

3) Desdemona is not a strong, modern woman.

Because strong, modern women do not acquiesce in their own murders for adulteries they did not commit (or for any reason, period). Is that clear? Yes, Desdemona defies her father - but she leaves him for another father figure. Endowing her with self-possessed, liberated power may make for a kicky Act One, but leads to inexplicable Acts Four and Five.


4) Desdemona and Othello don't have great sex.

In fact, some critics have insisted that Othello and Desdemona never have sex at all. Certainly, despite all the racial hysteria and talk of "the beast with two backs," the couple's wedding night is interrupted - and then their honeymoon is, too. Some readers have pointed out, in fact, that Othello's instructions to Desdemona on the night he kills her are weirdly like those of a bridegroom, and she asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on what becomes her deathbed (why?). It's quite possible this couple never actually does the nasty (which of course would humanize both of them), and at any rate, some level of uncertain distance between the two, predicated on the wild elevation of Desdemona's purity (think how she's contrasted with the earthy Emilia), helps explain Othello's crazed behaviors.

4) Iago may be many things, but above all he is good at simulating intimacy.

By now Iago has almost become a totem for unfathomable evil - because his malice is so intense, and so unclearly motivated by self-interest. Sure, he has his "reasons" - in fact, the play sometimes seems like a catalogue of possible explanations for his behavior - but all these excuses are questioned or outright contradicted by the text at one point or other; thus a characterization can be built on one, or all, or none of them. The one thing that Iago cannot do without, however, is his talent for intimacy. Only Emilia, his one true intimate, sees through it - and even she, despite his abuses, never guesses at just how dark his soul actually is. Meanwhile everyone around him is utterly fooled by his social face, and he smoothly moves into relationships of absolute trust with not just Othello but also Cassio, Roderigo, and even Desdemona. "Deep inside," Iago may be a tortured, alienated void, but that's what the soliloquies are for - on the surface, he's a stand-up guy, your best and oldest friend. That's the whole point.

There are more where these came from (including "Is Othello an African - or an Arab?"), but I think that will do for know. Study these precepts, directors of Othello, and perpend! And now I've got episodes of Two and a Half Men to watch.