THE MAG: One Moor time

InPlay's version of tragic 'Othello' captures one man's violent demise

Thursday, October 18, 2001

In the latest Hollywood version of a William Shakespeare play, "Othello" was restaged as "O" and centered itself as a high school rivalry taking place on a basketball court. The elasticity of Shakespeare's words allow for all sorts of interpretations, which fits in nicely with InPlay Theatre's mission statement of staging multicultural productions featuring white, black, Hispanic and Asian cast members.

It also helps the independent group's game plan that the character of Othello � considered by many to be one of the greatest and most challenging theatrical roles in all English theater � is a minority figure, a Moor from the Middle Ages. It's a role that is custom made for interpretation by an African-American actor.

"My background is classical theater and original plays; both ends of the spectrum," says InPlay Theatre director Francis Farah. "InPlay's mission is to do plays with multicultural casts. 'Othello lends' itself to that, and our cast is a completely mixed cast from all different backgrounds."

Farah may be one of Shakespeare's biggest fans, and she's waited for years to have the opportunity to put on "Othello."

"In no way is it an exoneration for Othello's actions, but he's turned into a machine by Iago. Iago doesn't perceive himself as evil, just amoral," she says. The play is now up and running at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central St.

In the play's original inception, the good man, Othello, is twisted into a homicidal maniac by the scheming machinations of Iago. It appears that Iago has Othello's number, as he constantly works at undermining the Moor's love for Desdemona by imputing faithlessness on her part.

Farah pictures all sorts of modern parallels, and not just the scourge of schoolyard shootings. She also sees them in the latest round of terrorist violence.

"You take a guy like Osama bin Laden," she explains. "He takes people who are passionate about their religion and twists them and turns them into something ugly. It's the same things as what Iago does to Othello."

Because of the complexity of the characters, "These are roles that the best actors in the world want to perform and interpret," Farah says. She wanted to wait to tackle the production until she had a cast with acting chops suitable enough to invest in the characters. She thinks that over InPlay's three-year run in Kansas City that it has developed an acting core that can handle the demanding roles. The three main roles feature George Ford as Othello, Johnnie Bowles as Iago and Michelle Cotton as Desdemona.

"George has been in every single InPlay production. Johnnie's been in almost everyone. They've developed into fine actors. The quality of acting is kind of amazing. We're trying to stage it in a way that nothing comes between the actor and the script," Farah says.

The troupe is also tailoring the production to hold the attention of their modern-day audience. The play is being staged in the round, and some minor characters are being consolidated for the 12-member cast.

"We just have to make sure that a person going offstage doesn't meet themselves having to come back onstage in another role," she says.

Functioning on a shoestring budget, Farah has also opted to stage the set decor and costumes in a mix of the classic and contemporary.

"We had to have enough to show the grandeur of the situation, but we also wanted it simple at times to give it a modern look," she says.

Mostly, she knows it's about the playwright's words and how well the cast can faithfully interpret them. They have done several other shows, including "Richard III," but this is the group's greatest challenge. But if they fail, it won't be for lack of trying � or lack of quality material.

"It's absolutely incredible the kinds of ideas it is about: bigotry, hatred, jealousy and betrayal. It's a violent tragedy. An honorable man is twisted to an unbelievable degree by Iago's manipulation. It's written so well. The violence is so contemporary with what is happening now in the world," Farah says. "It's amazing that the play was written in the late 1500s and yet it has so much strength and power to draw in the audience. The play is hard to witness, because you know where it's going, and how it is going to get there. It's absolutely compelling. There is no need to make it applicable to the times we live in. It already is."