Encore Michigan

‘Othello’ in Royal Oak is served before its time

Review July 27, 2019 Bridgette Redman

ROYAL OAK, Mich.–Any audience of live theater can be expected to suspend disbelief to a certain extent and to recognize that in live theater, sometimes things go wrong that can’t be accounted for and must be forgiven. It is a pact between the audience and the artists.

However, that pact can only go so far before an experience is just off the rails.

An actor might forget his or her lines, but ideally they have the skills to cover and not just repeat the line they are stuck on, and ideally you don’t have multiple actors in the same show doing that.

Technical issues are understandable, especially if you are doing outdoor theater which is challenging in the best of circumstances, and in Michigan where rain and heat can conspire against actors. However, there comes a point where if the technical issues are interfering too much with the performance, something must be stopped and fixed, especially over intermission.

Opening night of Othello at Royal Oak Shakespeare was impossible to enjoy because the actors did not seem ready—perhaps because with last week’s heat they had little time to rehearse outdoors. The sound system cut in and out of every line–a problem this company has had in the past–making the play impossible to follow unless you already had the lines memorized. The directorial choices felt timid, and the blocking—especially in the crucial death scene—often conflicted with the lines and intent of the actors.

It was a disappointing presentation from a theater that traditionally puts on excellent outdoor Shakespeare and a director who is skilled in the genre and gifted in her storytelling.

Because one of the themes of Othello is racism, it is one of the few of the Bard’s plays that resists color-blind casting. The director, in this production Frannie Shepherd-Bates, must choose carefully which characters are played by people of color. While it is possible for Othello to be cast as white if everyone else in the cast is a person of color, Shepherd-Bates chose to go the more traditional route, giving the meaty title character to African-Amercian actor Will Bryson.

In what was one of her more interesting choices in this production, she also cast Roderigo as a person of color, played by actor Dante Jones. With both of the suitors that Desdemona’s father rejects being African-Americans, it further underlines his racism, as does Iago’s manipulation of the two men.

It did, though, cause some confusion in the opening scene. With the sound system issues, only a few words of Jones’ lines could be heard by the audience and it appeared at first that Iago was talking to Othello.

After that, there was a promising scene in the Senate. Catherine Coffey made a strong, impressive Desdemona, carrying herself with great composure as she entered the stage. Then the chemistry between Bryson and Coffey was amazing, promising electric scenes to come, a promise that unfortunately fizzled in the second act. As devoted lovers, though, they were convincing and delightful.

Jonathan Davidson has arguably the most important roles in the show, a character with so many lines he is exceeded only by Hamlet (and Henry V if you want to count that he had three plays to rack up the count). Iago is the villain of the show and this production was far more about him than the title character and his love.

In his monologues, Davidson shined. He revealed his hatred for the Moor, giving Iago strong motivation to do the evil things that he does and to spoil the lives that he does. But Davidson’s Iago is about more than just revenge. He is a manipulator, an abuser, the kind of powerful man who populates today’s headlines and who sparked the #metoo movement.

His scenes with others suffered while everyone was understandably struggling with what to do over the sound issues and because they were more focused on trying to overcome those problems than truly listening to each other or reacting to each other.

Sarah Hawkins’s Emilia was lusty and strong. We see her desire for her husband and her confusion at how he too often ignores or insults her. Devoted to her mistress as well as her husband, she clearly suspects that her mate is up to no good and scolds him when Othello starts to turn on Desdemona. She ends up in the role of the abused woman who enables her abuser to abuse others, at least until she has had her full.

Artun Kircali’s Cassio is likeable and comes across as the honest, fresh-faced innocent. He is in fact all that people wrongly describe Iago as being. He seems an obvious choice as Othello’s second in command, as Kircali infuses him with charisma and poise. He’s a bright college boy with a bright future, except he gets drunk much too quickly.

While the actors deserved great sympathy for the sound problems that made them impossible to understand, some of the fault lies in their hands, quite literally, as well. Too many times, actors rubbed the cheeks of other actors, causing the face mic to make awful sounds. It suggests that they had little rehearsal time with the mics and perhaps will get better with subsequent performances.

To be honest, the audience would have been better served if all the microphones had been turned off and the actors had projected the way they are all trained to do—and the way they could not when the microphones went in and out on them. During intermission, one first-time visitor came to the back row and asked if those sitting in the back could hear any better than he could from his blanket in the front row. If audience members in the first row can’t hear the actors, you might as well be doing a pantomime for three hours.

However, for a pantomime to be successful, the blocking would need to make more sense. The final bedroom scene was confused and over-wrought and drained all the tension that started with Bryson’s moving recitation of the “put out the light” speech.  

There was also a block on stage that was sometimes moved about for no clear purpose. Nothing happened that seemed to make the moving of the block necessary and it simply added to the confusion.

Shakespeare Royal Oak is a company with a rich past. They’ve performed outdoors for 19 years and been committed to putting on high quality shows with local Equity actors. The space is beautiful and the administrative staff creates a welcoming environment that promises a memorable experience. The hospitality tent is filled with cushions, bug spray, and anything else you might need. The concessions stand has more than your usual treats and what the executive director promises is the area’s best popcorn.

It’s a company worth having on your summer to-do list. Unfortunately, Othello is a show that is filled with problems to overcome in the rest of the run.

Week of 11/18/2019

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