by William Shakespeare
Directed by Joe Dowling
Featuring Lester Purry and Bill McCallum
Guthrie Theatre, Shakespeare in American Communities Tour
Cutler Majestic Theatre, Emerson College, Boston
April 7 - 10

Reviewed by Will Stackman

About a year ago, with some fanfare, the new head of the NEA, eclectic poet, businessman and commentator, Dana Gioia announced an initiative which would bring touring Shakespeare productions to small and mid-sized cities in all fifty states. The aim was revive the practice of touring theatre. At least in its first year, the effort seems to have been cobbled together by expanding on tours or using shows already in the works from seven reputable theatre organizations; The Acting Company, connected with Juilliard, and Aquila, connected to NYU; Alabama Shakespeare from Montgomery; Arkansas Rep from Little Rock; Artists Repertory Theatre --another ART-- from Portland OR; Chicago Shakespeare; and the largest operation, Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater, which was probably the most in-need of additional funds. The project incidentally has Laura Bush and Jack Valenti as honorary chairs, as announced before every performance. It appears the ArtsMidwest, a consortium of heartland state arts agencies, is in charge of the entire project.

GT's tour of "The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice" by William Shakespeare, which began with stops at their usual venues in the Midwest in January, was close to winding up in Boston this week. After a Spring break, this engagement finishes in Norfolk VA, and then go to L.A. under their own banner. The production is a very solid, but rather conventional version of the play, which wouldn't have seemed out of place at any Shakespeare Festival across this country anytime in the last forty years. Most of their stops were at college or university theatres, which wouldn't seem to be particularly under-served. For example, in Pennsylvania, "Othello" was done at Philadelphia's Annenberg Center, and at Penn State. Prior to Boston, the Guthrie played UMass Amherst. And much was made of free tickets funded by the SallieMae Fund, the philanthropic arm of the goverment-established college loan operation. A munificent 50 seats for students and chaperones were offered at each location, which in the Guthrie's case would amount to 600 seats for the tour out of perhaps 20,000 admissions--or less that 5%. The smaller companies with more stops at smaller institutions may have had better percentages.

But to get back to "Othello", a title is also being toured by NYU's Aquila, who will even get to do their modern dress version, which appears to be set on a British commando base in Cyprus, for the troops in Alaska. That treatment, acted by a reduced company, would probably have been more enthusiastically received in Boston. Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling's focus on Othello's human weakness and feelings of being an outsider is rather old hat. The show's physical action rarely rises above that practiced by our Shakespeare & Co. when touring for high school audiences. The company's middle American reading of the verse was competent, understandable, but seldom inspired. Patrick Clark's set is a version of the good old all-purpose platform with doors on each side and columns at the back that colleges used to store away and bring out for annual productions. His costumes are well-detailed Victorian Empire uniforms and dresses which provided historical distance and a touch of Masterpiece theatre, resulting in a kind of period drama with little contemporary resonance. The sound design is the most melodramatic element of the piece with a convenient thunderstorm, but not enough music. Dowling's years keeping the Abbey afloat in Dublin may have prepared him to do the same for the Guthrie with their monumental building project, but they don't seem to have prepared him for Shakespeare even on what he terms an intimate scale.

The cast is experienced and capable, but not particularly compelling. Lester Purry's Othello is a complex enough reading, but a bit too politic and somewhat diminished by too much being made of the Moor's epileptic problem as the climax approaches.. And as is too often the case these days, Bill McCallum's Iago steals the show, and not very subtley. McCallum and Kris L. Nelson as Roderigo start the show at frenetic pace, and the former never lets up. It's not hard to see why the astute Moor chose Robert O. Berdahl's Cassio over this lout. It's even harder to fathom why Virginia S. Burke's Emilia, whose scene at the climax is riveting, ever does his bidding. Desdemona as played by Cheyenne Casebier is more a trophy wife than the true love that drives Othello to madness. An extended death scene, realistic with erotic overtones, makes her brief recovery anticlimactic. Dowling's essentially melodramatic approach then becomes mechanical with too much lateral toing and froing. He finally has the title character commit suicide using a secret blade springing from his heavy armlet, rather than a simple dagger.

One can only hope that the other productions partially supported by this NEA program, including Alabama's Shakespeare "Macbeth" slated for presentation at Army bases, aren't so pedestrian. The current salesman-like posture of the NEA, which has decided to focus on American Masterpieces--the safer the better--doesn't bode well for more adventurous Shakespeare producers, like Lenox-based Shakespeare & Co. "The customer is always right" hasn't worked that well for the quality of American Film, after all. It will be interesting to see what shows, if any, tour next fall during the election --"All's Well that Ends Well"--wishful thinking perhaps?--or if a change in administration will get some other initiatives going in the spring. Having repertory companies from various parts of the country exchange shows would be a far more useful approach, for example, if development of the American Theatre was what the NEA really had in mind. Or working on international cross-fertilization. As part of this project, the Artists Repertory Theatre from Portland OR did a limited West Coast tour of "Midsummers..." together with members of the Central Dramatic Company of Vietnam. What's the followup?

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