Sunday, November 9, 2003
Aquila Theatre Company's performance of "Othello" Friday night at the Lied Center contained all the elements of a great tragedy: a scheming villain, betrayal, murder, suicide. Ah, the classics.
Because Othello passes him over for a promotion and allegedly sleeps with his wife, Iago dupes Othello into believing his own wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with Cassio. Othello then kills Desdemona, commissions the murder of Cassio, and takes his own life -- all inside two and a half hours.
Still, with all the plot twists, modern military costumes, accessible music and sets, Aquila's production was lukewarm.
In a return performance, Aquila Theatre Company, which performed Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and Homer's "The Wrath of Achilles" here in April 2002, staged "Othello" as a part of Shakespeare in American Communities, a national theater touring initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest. The initiative's goal is to create a young audience, to lure youth away from their iPods and Walkman radios. Aquila's "Othello," chosen in part for its roughly 400th anniversary, may not have reached that goal.
In the first three acts, Othello, played by Lloyd Notice, unconvincingly fell from war hero to blubbering-dupe-in-love to psycho-jealous-lover. The "dull Moor" redeemed himself in the second half, portraying a man consumed by fantasies of revenge, but it was not enough to command the troops; the audience remained aligned with Iago.
Anthony Cochrane, Iago/composer/musical director/Aquila associate ensemble director, outshined the entire cast. His superb ability to communicate with the audience via body language and facial expression transcended the archaic Shakespearean diction over which other lesser performers often trip. Unfortunately, or rather, fortunately, Iago dominated the entire play.
While Cochrane's acting rescued the production, his compositions worked against it. At best, the music faded into the background, took few risks and stayed out of the way of the dialogue. At worst, the music swelled too loud and became overly cliche and unnecessary.
In a pre-concert lecture, Cochrane informed the audience that the production had shaved more than an hour off the original play to help speed up the pace. The dialogue edits were good, as were the choreographed transitions between each act. These transitions helped provide a movement-based visual contrast to the speaking-based body of the play and moved the entire production forward at a quick clip. The singing, however, could have stood further cuts, as it was largely out of tune and ineffective.
Cochrane also stated that his goal was to create a score specific to the play. It fit the play: entrance to exit. But the music itself was uninteresting and unoriginal, except for a spot of techno-brilliance in Act II. Celebrating at a local bar, Othello's troops drank, danced and fought to a driving techno beat. The mix of slow-movement acting alternating with real-time action over the relentless bass line gave the scene a more modern-movie feel that was exciting and engaging.
As for the other notable characters, Tracey Mitchell, as Emilia, put forth a strong performance, as did Kathryn Merry, who salvaged Desdemona from the pit of bit parts, conveying a strong and independent woman. However, Desdemona's last gasp drew laughter, not sympathy, from a visibly thinned and confused, post-intermission audience.
Shakespeare, himself, it would seem, favored Iago by giving him a majority of the lines. And some would argue that the play is flawed, the character of Othello undeveloped, inconsistent and unbelievable.
Or perhaps the characters in this particular production were unbalanced and the musical direction inconsistently effective.
Emily Criqui lives in Lawrence and is the poetry fellow at Wichita State University.