As political tensions have been building over the last few years, we have seen the rise of prophetic and metaphoric storytelling.
It seems as if our visual storytellers wish to impart some historical wisdom. In the last few months I have heard of three or four productions of "West Side Story," a couple of productions of "Ragtime" and now "Othello" is back. As you might remember, Othello is among Shakespeare's most produced works.
Based on an earlier play called "A Moorish Captain," Shakespeare took this story of a man of color, who was a brilliant general trusted by leaders at the highest level, and transformed it into the tragedy we have today.
At the heart of "Othello" is what appears to be two trusting relationships. One of these relationships is real and one is an illusion. It is the story of bald ambition. Othello thinks his great friendship with Iago is so trustworthy that he takes Iago's testimony over that of his own wife. Othello's wife, Desdemona, deeply trusts her husband and believes at her own peril that their love speaks louder than any vicious rumors.
This work of art stands as fresh today as it was that opening night in England Some 400 years ago. “But how?” you say. “Men aren't so stupid as to believe other men over the testimony of women.” “It's 2019,” you say, “no one is jealous or angry when people of color are promoted to high ranking positions.”
The production in the Studio at the Long Beach Playhouse frames these points with the clean lines of the 1960s. A period of time, it seems, a great deal of people wish they could return to. The set evokes heroic architecture of the period, strong, masculine, clean, and cold. The costumes here emulate the fashion's crisp tailored structure, that like an insect's exoskeleton, held together a decade that ended in turbulent change.
Aurora J. Culver’s direction guides the actors towards performances that illuminate the language. Culver's choices regarding the location of each scene are perfectly chosen to reinforce the dramatic action.
Alexander Harris as Othello handled the extreme emotions that this character must travel through with skill and ease. From Harris's subtle strength and confidence to his utter collapse later in the story, he is convincing through and through. Many productions of Shakespeare’s works border on melodrama due to the great amount of exaggeration in physicality necessary. The tone here, struck by Harris and truly the whole ensemble, was well balanced.
Carly Taylor gives another strong performance carrying the night. As Desdemona perfectly crafts Othello’s wife for the period of the 1960s. Taylor's stately Jackie Onassis-like energy conveyed a sense of security in her position — a position that Iago would eventually undo.
Don Kindle as honest Iago shifts seamlessly between confidant and creep. He makes Iago’s manipulations seem justified to his unwitting co-conspirators and even to himself. So many Iagos turn to the audience to twirl their mustaches, but Kindle turns to us to convince us he is right.
It is, however, Hillary Weintraub’s performance as Iago's wife that is the glue holding the evening together. This is due to Weintraub’s unflagging honesty as Emelia that brings the production to life. She is so convincing and committed to each moment that Shakespeare’s words in her mouth seem translated into modern English.
In this moment of political unrest in the world, it is good to be reminded, by the “West Side Storys” and the “Ragtimes” and the "Othellos," that the enemy is often someone we do not see coming. That allegiances should always be questioned, and in acting upon our instincts, we should do more research and less reacting.
Othello continues through Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays in the Studio Theatre at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St. Note, the Studio Theatre is on the second floor, and there is no elevator.
Tickets are $14-$24, available at www.lbplayhouse.org or through the box office, 562-494-1014.