In an age where every little theatre company takes it upon themselves to tinker and fiddle with the classics, it wouldn't be surprising to see Othello set in 1980s Iraq, World War II, or even in outer space. Fortunately the American Globe Theatre specializes in the classics, and they do them right. The Globe's Othello is mercifully set in Venice and Cyprus, and viewers are allowed to draw their own conclusions about its relevance to modern society.
There is a little bit of tinkering though, but it's very effective tinkering; such as director John Basil's decision to put the intermission right in the middle of Act III Scene III (the all-important handkerchief-dropping moment). Basil then picked up the scene at that exact moment, when the audience returned. It's an unconventional way to break up the show, but it made a more effective cliffhanger than any of Shakespeare's act breaks.
Basil's casting choices were not the result of a desire to tinker, and the principal players were well-chosen. No matter how many times one hears the "Put out the light, then put out the light" speech it's still chilling, and when it's delivered by a powerful actor like Patrick Rameau it becomes outright terrifying. Rameau played opposite Kathryn Savannah's Desdemona, and the delicate Savannah, with her lustrous mane of blonde hair, was an ideal choice for Othello's doomed wife. Savannah played Desdemona a bit more perceptive than Shakespeare might have intended (keenly aware of her impending death as soon as the script allows her to).
Of course this play should really be titled Iago since the "Hellish Villain" is the true star here. With the exception of Lex Luthor, no villain is as purely and unabashedly evil as Iago. With his endless asides and soliloquies, Iago makes sure the audience knows just how fiendish he really is. At the Globe, Richard Fay made a masterful Iago. When Fay pretended to be Othello or Cassio's friend, he had a twinkle in his eye that let the audience know what he was up to. This was never blatant enough to make anyone question why Cassio (Michael Colby Jones) or Roderigo (Graham Stevens) didn't catch on, but it gave the audience all the more reason to hate Iago like the "damned ... inhuman dog" that he is.
Vincent A Masterpaul's set was a versatile playing space for the various locations in the play. Masterpaul's two-story construction served equally well as a Venetian mansion, a quay in Cyprus, or a corpse-filled bedchamber. The symbolism of the black-and-white color scheme was a little obvious, but still suitable.
Jim Parks's costumes were elaborate, and Rameau's Othello made a striking figure in his Moorish ensembles, with a touch of Renaissance European style. Composer/sound designer Scott O'Brien strutted his stuff with his score, which skillfully complemented the dramatic tensions of the tragedy. Mark Hankla's lighting design blended well with Basil's direction (particularly a dramatic spotlight on the fallen handkerchief at intermission) and successfully covered all of Masterpaul's spacious set. It's a shame that on December 6 Hankla will have to put out the light, then put out the lights forever on this show.
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby