Mo' better Moor

Legendary New York theatrical producer Joseph Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival are generally credited with the idea of "restaging" Billy the Shake's comedies and tragedies. This was a decision both commercial and artistic from a man and a company for whom those considerations were rarely in conflict. Papp and his directors and actors remembered what had been lost in America's polarization of class and culture--that Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an entertainer for the masses, a verbal Spielberg who devised beautiful, terrifying special effects out of poetry and insight into fragile human nature.

Unfortunately, Papp has bequeathed a smart legacy to theatrical hands far less skilled than his own. You can't throw a rock in any major American city's summer Shakespeare festival without hitting some boneheaded director who thinks his or her vision constitutes a fresh insight into classical texts that have been endlessly sampled over the centuries. It's more accurate to call many of these productions "recostumings," as the creative minds behind them rarely display the cojones to do more than stick a cowboy hat on Hamlet's head or big white go-go boots on the legs of Titania.

This leads us to the conundrum at the heart of any new Shakespeare staging. Because Shakespeare is considered the master of Western theater, his dialogue is regarded as sacred, beyond being tampered with except for a trim here and there. At the same time, this very reputation has led to a crippling ubiquity of his words. Even some of the most haunting verse ever written cannot maintain its effectiveness after being referenced ad nauseam by a quadrillion playwrights, novelists, poets, journalists, and film and TV writers. This makes the various "updates" that dot America's festivals seem trite if not downright irrelevant, since the problem is not how Macbeth should be dressed, but how his words can be manipulated to offer even a hint of the revelation they possessed long ago.

The tragedy Othello, currently being staged by the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, is a perfect example. As directed by New York veteran Rene Moreno and performed by a competent, occasionally thrilling cast, this version suffers from a split personality. On the one hand, Moreno has transplanted the tale of a proud Moor (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson at Othello) tricked into seeking revenge on his faithful wife (Liz Piazza Kelley as Desdemona) by a villainous associate (Joseph Fuqua as Iago) to a relatively obscure 20th-century skirmish between Italians and Turks: He seems to have innovation, interpretation, or at least a desire for ingenuity on his mind. But by and large, the actors display a frustrating lack of insight in their performances, which remain faithful to a fault to Shakespeare's words. The cast finds few shades of characterization beyond the rather archetypal emotions offered by the author's monologues and asides. The script's deficiencies rise to the surface like air bubbles.

Bluntly put, Othello is one of the Bard's murkier tragedies, because as written the pivotal character of Iago possesses no clear motivation for his monstrous desire to destroy Othello. Richard III had his hump, Macbeth his desire to become king, but we are asked to accept Iago's bloodthirstiness as an intrinsic part of his personality. This is a mysterious omission by an author legendary for his scrupulous examinations of the human heart, and one that has been filled in many versions by an obvious, not altogether unwarranted layer of sexual intrigue. Most film, TV, and stage productions of Othello have encouraged the actor playing Iago to "work it, girl." A barely sublimated lust by Iago for Othello, and a jealousy at the latter's elopement with Desdemona, provides as good an explanation as any for Iago's obsessive scheming, and one that Shakespeare himself may well have intended but, for obvious reasons, couldn't spell out. There's good reason to believe "the green-eyed monster" invoked by the text causes Iago's downfall, as well.

But there are no such explorations provided for in the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas' Othello, which leaves a troublesome vacuum at the play's dark heart. Iago's homosexuality has been hinted at for so long, one can see why director Moreno and actor Fuqua might consider that path too well-trod to venture down. However, It seems more likely part of the larger lethargy that plagues this production, a paint-by-numbers devotion to the dialogue that would surely flatter Shakespeare even as he nodded off.

Peruse the performances, and you'll see what I mean. Desdemona has been played as a flirtatious, maybe-she-is-a-'ho firecracker, a rebellious daughter, and a go-getter who sees the beautiful black Moor as a trophy husband. As played by the lovely-voiced Kelley, Desdemona is a dishrag defined not by what she is but by what she isn't--an adulteress. Fuqua resists the natural urge to camp it up as Iago, but his performance is dictated by a superficial reading of the character that makes the villain's status as a master manipulator unconvincing. Simply put, he doesn't show us why Iago is so good at being bad--he tells us.

As Othello, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson disintegrates with appropriate bluster, although he gives short shrift to the proud side of the Moor's personality, and consequently conveys the character more as an unstable pawn than a man of honor. Still, it's a pleasure to see Fuqua and Henderson on the stage again after their masterful scene together as Louis and Belize in the Dallas Theater Center's recent Angels in America.

The standout performer here is Connie Nelson as Emelia, wife to Iago, maidservant to Desdemona, and unwitting accessory in a pair of vicious murders. Luckily, Emelia has most of her scenes in the final act, which allows the acerbic, soulful Nelson to very nearly rescue the play at its bloody climax. Attending to Desdemona on the night of her murder, Emelia delivers the tragedy's plea for accepting the humanity and fallibility of women. Smoking a cigarette, her legs crossed casually as she sits at the edge of the stage, Nelson is three parts Eve Arden to one part neglected wife. She seems to have earned a Ph.D.'s worth of wisdom about human relationships from her strange, unsatisfying marriage to Iago. Nelson is prickly and world-weary, intuitive and vulnerable, and her sorrow at losing Desdemona registers far more powerfully than Othello's.

She is, in short, an exception in a cast that too often appears to be reciting Shakespearean verse instead of feeling it. You get the idea that director Rene Moreno is himself tired of the gimmicky nature that mars so many contemporary Shakespearean productions. Other than its mysterious change of scenery, this version feels like a defense of the play's textual integrity. That would be an admirable stand if only Moreno and company had worked harder to find the pulse beneath the story's skin. No matter how many times this Othello is pricked, he doesn't bleed.

If William Shakespeare is a great writer who's suffered from overexposure, Clifford Odets is a mediocre one primed for a rediscovery. Odets was the ultrasensitive scribe, ardent leftist, and champion of the little guy whose theatrical meditations on the loss of idealism earned him ecstatic critical praise in the New York theater of the '20s and '30s. His Communist sympathies as well as his ego were legendary, which probably explains why he passed out of fashion so quickly and has never enjoyed a real revival: His bombastic studies of the moral consequences of "selling out," however passionate, seem as quaintly anachronistic as American Communism itself.

Still, tough guys from Mamet to Stoppard owe a big debt to Odets, who was a pioneer in making street slang a legitimate expression on the American stage. Mamet will (perhaps) age better than Odets because the "F word" isn't poised for extinction anytime soon. Odets mostly bypassed profanity in favor of colloquialisms and popular slang of the time, which is the primary reason much of his work provokes giggles these days.

Give credit to director Kyle McClaran and his excellent cast that Richardson Theatre Centre's production of Odets' Hollywood melodrama, The Big Knife, makes you laugh in all the right places, and even manages to wring some genuine pathos from a morality play whose heroes and villains are so simplistically drawn, you imagine Odets distributing black and white hats among the cast at dress rehearsal.

Charlie Castle (Jim Sullivan) is the dashing alcoholic movie actor who sold his soul to studio chief Mona Hoff (Kelly Lawrence) in exchange for stardom. He is surrounded by people who love him but fear his self-destructive impulses and the Hollywood environment that encourages it: his long-suffering wife, Marion (Sara Lovett), who's sick of suffering; his big-hearted Jewish agent, Nat (Donna Fotshky); and his publicist, Buddy (Charles Alexander), who took the fall for Castle's drunk-driving accident that resulted in death. Trouble is, there's a tarty contract player named Dixie (Annie Savage, whose wonderful character appears far too briefly) who knows the truth behind that particular incident and has the unfortunate habit of spilling her guts after a few martinis.

If Pocket Sandwich Theatre or Pegasus Theatre were to mount this show, they'd hammer away relentlessly at the audience's funny bone by emphasizing the expiration date on the play's sensibility. Of course, McClaran and his actors know full well that these characters long ago petrified into stereotypes, hence the stylization of the set, costumes (some of the most beautiful you'll see on a Dallas stage this year), performances, and the presence of Lawrence as a masked chanteuse/narrator/mime who frames the action. But there are no quotation marks here, no conspiratorial winks to the audience. Those performers who are over the top (Lawrence as the sharklike Mona is particularly grandiose, but also commanding) are inspired by an honest search for the play's good intentions, not the jaded desire to let ticket buyers know the actor is smarter than his or her character.

This production of The Big Knife benefits enormously from the relative obscurity of its script. But because McClaran and his cast refuse to play it ironic, a choice that has itself become horrendously, tiresomely trite, you're left to appreciate the play's strengths and understand its weaknesses as a product of its time. This is the type of homage for which any neglected author would be grateful.

The Big Knife runs through July 27. Call 699-1130.

Othello alternates with A Midsummer Night's Dream through July 28. Call 559-2782.


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