Stage Review: Unseam'd Shakespeare takes 'Othello' to a whole noir world

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A director's "concept" can cut both ways, either illuminating a play or obscuring it, depending on whether the controlling idea better serves the original play or itself.


Doug Mertz, left, as Iago and Bill Bland as Othello give a reel feel to a classic in Unseam'd Shakespeare's "Othello: Noir."
Click photo for larger image.

'Othello: Noir'

Where: Unseam'd Shakespeare at Open Stage, 2835 Smallman St., Strip District.
When: Through July 1; Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m.; also 4 p.m. July 1.
Tickets: $20-$22; 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org.

"Othello: Noir," adapted from Shakespeare's tragedy for Unseam'd Shakespeare by director Michael Hood and David Pellegrini, is definitely in the former camp, where the concept serves something that was in the play all along -- but it touches on the latter camp, as well.

The Unseam'd concept is simple: to discover in "Othello" such elements we associate with film noir as the solitary anti-hero, cynicism about relationships, romantic world-weariness and a focus on isolation, betrayal and sacrifice, and then to suffuse them with appropriately portentous or yearning music and atmospheric murk.

So Gordon Phetteplace's set is an intimate site of platforms and arches, alluding only faintly to the civic grandeur of Shakespeare's tale, narrowing down instead to the intimacy of its personal manipulations and betrayals. Phetteplace's lights create a gloom that is moral as well as physical, with occasional expressionist effects to dramatize the emotional melodrama.

Given that setting and mood, with the audience wrapped close around two sides in the flexible Open Stage Theatre space, director Hood then sets to work by stripping away. He starts the play with a brisk, self-conscious prologue that introduces the major characters with projected morgue shots and speeches lifted from the body of the play, then takes us directly to war-troubled Cyprus. There, we focus immediately on Iago's plan to poison Othello's mind with jealousy of his new wife, Desdemona, and his lieutenant, Cassio.

That personal tale is told with great speed and clarity by a cast of just 10. The scene in which Iago gets Cassio drunk and embroils him with Roderigo and the Cypriot captain is as plausible as I've ever seen it. Iago plants the seeds of Othello's jealousy with great efficiency, and the gullible Othello moves precipitously toward murderous revenge.

There is some delectable detail along the way. The atmosphere of camaraderie among soldiers is well observed, and Desdemona and her waiting woman, Emilia, make perfect '40s women in the hopeful starlet and embittered Girl Friday mode. Suitably pruned, Shakespeare's text is discovered to pulsate with the ruefulness of noir.

Only near the end does the narrative thrust lose its force, when, after Desdemona is dispatched, the play seems to try to recover the tragic size it has avoided all along. The pace sags and turns lugubrious, with Emilia, especially, taking long pauses like a tragic queen.

In those pauses, you might think back over what "Othello: Noir" has chosen to omit. Gone is the entire Venetian part of the play (Act I in the text), where we hear of Othello's great feats of warrior service and courtship of the virginal Desdemona and experience the violent opposition of her father. With that gone, Othello's blackness seems hardly at issue -- so little so that Cassio is played by a black man, too, since that racism is largely gone.

Gone, too, is Othello's grandeur and his foreignness (except for the hint of an accent, or perhaps it's over-articulation). The result is an intimate tragedy about a jealous husband.

Or is that all? With such a famous story, you can cut away huge chunks, but they still reverberate. Angry references to Othello as a devil may remind us how large his racial difference looms in Shakespeare, in which case Cassio's blackness is confusing. This nontraditional casting is certainly a fruitful case for debate at the "community conversation" on "Bridges or Fences: Diversity on the American Stage," which Unseam'd is staging tomorrow at Carnegie Mellon University.

The net result of the textual cuts, downplay of race and pace of the production is to increase the influence of Iago. Act 1 is almost entirely his. Fortunately, Doug Mertz is up to the challenge, with a commanding performance as a bluff noncom, burying his hatred in apparent ordinariness and only occasionally slipping into snarling villainy.

Bland has great dignity as Othello. He seems a soldier, but he devolves quickly into torment. The passionate shakes he indulges seem to me falsely histrionic, but his final scenes have clarity and restraint. Karen Baum's Desdemona is a sweet victim, desperate in protest, but her faint final speeches don't solve the enigma of Desdemona's refusal to blame her killer.

Lissa Brennan looks the quintessential '40s moll as Emilia, and Brian Czarniecki is a perfectly weedy, hapless Roderigo. Robin Abramson is touching in her brief appearance as Bianca, and Ben Blazer, Marc Epstein and Brett Mack offer capable support.

Joshua Reese is an appealing Cassio, but it is he whom "Othello: Noir" chooses as its frame anti-hero. The play ends with him alone over a bottle and his memories. It's a nice noir touch, but it is an example of the concept's taking precedence over the play.


"Bridges or Fences: A Community Conversation about Diversity in Local Theatre and Dance Performance" is free to the public, 1:30-4:30 p.m. tomorrow, at CMU's Gregg Auditorium (100 Porter Hall).


Post-Gazette drama critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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