All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Dan Hodge’s production of “Othello” for Curio Theatre centers so much on Shakespeare’s exponentially duplicitous villain, and Brian McCann’s performance of Iago takes such dominant focus, the scoundrel may as well get his ultimate revenge on Othello by usurping the play’s title as well.
Even though Hodge, known for his for-better-or-worse fiddling with Shakespeare, includes almost every scene the Bard provided — He mostly trims or avoids passages that are loaded with political prattle or that delay the entrance of primary characters while lesser figures chatter. — his first act plays quickly and efficiently, usually with Iago glomming the spotlight. That is, when Tim Martin deigns to light him, which, in the opening scenes with Roderigo often fails to happen. Perhaps intentionally to underscore the surreptitiousness of the men’s meeting.
Hodge’s production seems to be most interested in the mechanics of Iago’s plot against Othello, and by extension, against Cassio, for whom he also has disdain. Both in conversation and soliloquy, McCann carefully spells out Iago’s nefarious intentions and takes special delight in delineating all of their calamitous repercussions. Even when Iago, per Shakespeare, admits to confusion about the course best taken, McCann seems to enjoy configuring and sharing all of the possible permutations his mischief can foster.
As a character study, and an examination in the logic and execution of naked villainy, Hodge’s staging scores palpable points. McCann is a wily Iago. He can be calculating treachery with the precision and concentration of a master criminal, then be greeted by one he plots to harm, and turn on a smile and charm that would disarm even one who might be observing Iago for signs of perfidy or deceit.
McCann’s Iago is a chameleon who will be the man anyone present needs him to be and act his part convincingly. Only Emilia, his put-upon wife, has the vaguest clue that Iago is an architect of conniving evil. His transitions from conspiratorial and scheming to statesmanlike and sympathetic are done on a dime. He is also quick to take advantage of Martin’s frequent darkness to add an anonymous voice to a debate or get in a furtive rapier stab or two.
McCann doesn’t indulge in subtlety. Suddenness is his technique for transforming Iago from a devious plotter of intrigue to a fawning courtier, competent soldier, convivial companion, valued ally, and trusted friend. He goes from Cassius to Horatio in a flash, and he gulls everyone into thinking he is gregarious, capable, and trustworthy, Even though Othello chose Cassio over Iago to his lieutenant, or second in command, he repeatedly calls on Iago to perform a variety of duties, including being Desdemona’s protective escort when she sails, separate from Othello, from Venice to Cyprus.
Hodge and McCann give you the chance to study Iago and his adroit, Machiavellian ways.
The trouble is Shakespeare’s play is called Othello and requires that some attention to be paid to the title character. Neither Othello nor Desdemona get the attention due them by their status among Shakespeare’s dramatis personae until deep into Curio’s second act, when Othello’s jealousy, stoked by Iago, takes its murderous course.
Until then, the Curio company is doing “Iago,” and while at it, shows clearly that jealousy not only motivates Othello to commit a terrible act but that it drives Iago to his craving for revenge.
Hodge isolates Iago’s speeches about his reasons for wanting to ruin Othello, and Cassio in the bargain. He puts jealousy in the forefront as the catalyst for everything that leads to tragedy in Shakespeare’s play.
Iago is not a tragic figure because he knowingly, conscientiously, puts in motion the acts that will make or stymie him, and realizes he may fail while believing, from early results, he will succeed and prosper from his cunning. He is, though, an intensely jealous man who is impelled to villainy by that same green-eyed monster he warns Othello to beware.
In the course of his speeches Iago reveals he is not only resentful towards Othello for giving Cassio a higher rank when Othello knows how competent and leaderlike he is in battle and how well three potentates of Venice regard him. He is jealous of both men who rank above him. What’s more, he is enamored of Desdemona. He also suspects Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia, and extends his paranoia by hinting that Cassio boarded Emilia as well.
This emphasis on Iago becomes a complete and interesting character study, but sometimes at the expense of Shakespeare’s play.
Brian McCann may fascinate impressively as the nucleus of Hodge’s production, but he is almost alone is having an effect. Only Eric Scotolati, as Cassio, matches him in intensity and depth of portrayal. Steven A. Wright’s Othello and Isa St. Clair’s Desdemona are almost supporting players to McCann. Rachel Gluck is able to grab some attention as Emilia, but in general, “Othello” at the Curio is McCann’s chance at a tour de force. The play, and its passion, are left to be gleaned and savored in drips and drabs. McCann’s Iago has all that happens in Venice and Cyrprus revolving around him.
Acting quality varies, and Othello seems a secondary character for three-quarters of this production, so except when McCann informs you of Iago’s next tactical move, there’s little to watch. At no point in this production do Wright and St. Clair get to establish and demonstrate the love between Othello and Desdemona, a love Shakespeare lets you know must be genuine and that is critical to make plain and endearing if “Othello” is to be tragedy. If Desdemona only cares about Othello as a storyteller and romantic man of the world, and Othello only regards Desdemona as a beautiful young woman from a rich Venetian family, all is lost. We have to see the contrast from deep, unmistakable love to feel the pity and terror of a homicide committed in the name of honor and jealousy.
The effect of jealousy makes its way effectively to the Curio stage. The sense that Othello and Desdemona are coherently and ardently in love does not.
While Hodge’s production is good as making a lot in “Othello” clear, it fails at being a tragedy because the first act does not take the time to establish all elements of Shakespeare’s story. Iago is too much the focus. We know more about his spurring on of Roderigo, and more about Roderigo in general than we do about Othello and Desdemona, whose appearances seem brief and perfunctory, an introduction to two characters rather than piercing, engaging encounters with the couple whose story Shakespeare is primarily telling. We see Paul Kuhn’s Roderigo enough to form an opinion of him and be aware of his business. But Othello seems like a functionary, a man who breaks up fights and gets commissions Iago thinks should be his. Desdemona gets no more chance to claim a place in our thoughts or hearts than Emilia, or even Bianca, does.
Iago is one of the most complex and pivotal characters in all of Shakespeare, which means in all of literature, but he plays the part of one who brings down a titan, a true colossus and bona fide hero that needs to be lauded and show his superior mettle and not be relegated as the foil of another man’s sinister plot.
Hodge’s “Othello” has a focus, but it lacks a core. Parts of the play register well, including the consequential scenes surrounding Desdemona’s murder and the carousing sequence that assures Cassio’s undoing, but the whole seems helter-skelter and undefined. Brian McCann achieves intensity, His Iago is always worth watching for his witty and telling facial expressions and his quicksilver handling of obstacles. The production in its entirety does not match McCann in depth. It invites you to watch objectively but doesn’t succeed in garnering or tugging on emotions. This “Othello” has put head over heart, and it stops short of being fulfilling because its one purpose appears to be to make us closely study and appreciate the machinations of Iago. He is all that matters, and except for Scotolati and at times, Gluck, no one makes you care much about them, or what they say, in this staging. In spite of some good ideas, Scotolati’s intoxication scene and the best use of Desdemona’s significant handkerchief that I’ve ever seen, this remains too disjointed, too single-minded an “Othello” to show the majesty and scope of the play.
Voices are another factor. McCann speaks Shakespeare’s verse as if he conversed in it normally as his everyday patois. Scotolati, Gluck, and Steve Carpenter also find a tone that sounds like speech instead of reciting. Vocal ability made the scenes with the strongest actors even stronger, and more out of kilter or proportion with all that needs to happen markedly if one is to see a fully realized “Othello.” Parts of the play, for instance Othello’s initial scenes when he is confronted by Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, and is called before the Duke of Venice, fly by without making a dent in involving the audience.
Only Iago’s plotting does that. Though Hodge did not cut, or reorder, this script as much as he has other Shakespearean plays, he leaves it emotionally and even narratively incomplete. Iago’s machinations, manipulations, and talents at malleability, become the play. The characters they effect, except for Cassio, get short shrift.
Daniel Ison’s sound design, which includes gondolas knocking into the wooden pylons that line Venice’s harbor, tell us we’re in Venice more than Paul Kuhn’s open set does. Iago’s streetside meeting with Roderigo is in dim light that gets a little more revealing when the two rouse Brabantio from bed to tell him of Desdemona’s marriage. The lack of light makes it more difficult to become engaged in all that is happening. You hear McCann’s Iago conspiring early enough, but you don’t get into the action intensely because it is hard to keep track of where he is on the stage. In addition to it being dark, McCann and Kuhn keep moving in what amounts to candlelight but is, I guess, meant to approximate starlight in a city that is shuttered for the night and not emitting light from palazzo windows.
We are left with a stilted “Othello,” one that manages to offer a brilliant and comprehensive portrait of one character but sacrifices Shakespeare’s play to that thoroughness. Everything seems rushed when Iago is not on stage or working his tactical phenomena. Only Scotolati manages to steal the Curio stage from McCann on occasion, and even then, you are witnessing Iago’s strategic wizardry at work.
Hodge’s production seems unpolished and awkwardly paced. It doesn’t establish a rhythm or sense of narrative flow. The character of Montano doesn’t even get introduced to Desdemona, who follows him offstage following her arrival in Cyprus. Economies in this production are in staging and storytelling as opposed to text. For all the care Hodge takes in some details, he overlooks a dozen others.
One irony is he makes one element of Shakespeare’s plotting as exquisite as I’ve ever seen it. (I should say “as I’ve never seen it” because Hodge’s staging of this one portion ranks as the best in my experience with more than a dozen ‘Othellos,” many disappointing, one, the 2013 National Theatre production, magnificent.)
This excellence involves Desdemona’s handkerchief, her first gift ever from Othello, a “napkin” intricately embroidered with strawberries that Othello acquired from his mother to whom it was also an heirloom and a token of love. Iago makes a teasing innuendo about the handkerchief, and Othello becomes obsessed with it, using its absence as the deciding proof that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio.
In most productions, the handkerchief, critical evidence though it becomes, is worked in fleetingly. Hodge takes scrupulous care in to introduce and show its course from Desdemona’s hand to Iago’s advantage. Rarely do you see Desdemona in early scenes in Cyprus that she isn’t holding it. It is a prominent part of Isa St. Clair’s costume and stays in her hand as if it were sewn to it.
Hodge stages an intricate bit in which the handkerchief is unwittingly but understandably dropped. Desdemona is in haste while juggling a number of objects and doesn’t notice she’s lost hold of the handkerchief in her confusion. Emilia sees it and turns back for it as she is about to leave the room after Desdemona. She recognizes it as something Desdemona would sorely miss and as an object Iago has asked her to steal and give to him. Emilia, though originally inclined to go after Desdemona with the item, determines to win some of Iago’s hard-to-get favor by giving him the napkin.
We see the scene where she gives Othello’s gift to her husband. We also see how it comes into the possession of Michael Cassio. Even better, we see Cassio carrying the folded handkerchief secured under his belt on his left side. To make sure we see it in Cassio’s hands, Hodge has him take the napkin from his belt to wipe his brow in a scene in which others seeking the handkerchief, now discovered missing by Desdemona, do not notice it right though it is right before their eyes. Bianca, a Cypriot woman with whom Cassio has a dalliance, is also seen with the token. If only Hodge had been as creative and careful with every part of this production! Even the embroidery of the strawberries is beautiful, in keeping with Shakespeare’s description. (You’d be surprised how many times you have to squint in some productions and never see a strawberry or find one embroidered into a corner often hidden by Desdemona’s hand.)
The sequences in which Cassio gets drunk are also a joy to watch. Eric Scotolati, as Cassio, is laughing in good fellowship with others celebrating a Cypriot military victory when he confides to Iago that he cannot handle more than one flagon of wine and must abstain from toasting and carousing because he is assigned to guard duty that evening and has special orders from Othello to be vigilant.
Iago does not have to be Cassio’s nemesis on this occasion. Though he inveighs Cassio to have a second helping of wine, Othello’s lieutenant seems in command of himself yet. Montano is the one who unwittingly pushes Cassio over the edge to full intoxication. When Montano and others come and chide Cassio for not drinking with him, the lieutenant’s pride is struck and he is thoroughly schnockered by the time he has to take his post.
Scotolati is marvelous in this scene. His smile becomes broader and his walk becomes lighter with each draft before he begins slurring and staggering in a fine example of how drunkenness progresses, all the time denying he is in the least impaired. You see every step of the process, and the actor is to be congratulated for never overdoing any step by the slightest jot. Scotolati brings humor and charm to the production, even as he makes you fear for Cassio and regret that Iago’s plan is going to go well one more fatal time.
The sequence is one of the more human is Hodge’s productions. It seems real. You feel as if you are in a Cypriot citadel watching soldiers have a good time drinking and singing and cheering each other on to greater alcoholic heights. The scene has a lot of spirit, and Scotolati endows it with comedy as he lapses into Cassio’s stupor. It may be only time you connect with a character besides Iago and worry about his folly and its predictable aftermath.
Again, you see what could have been if the same care taken with Desdemona’s handkerchief and Cassio’s drunkenness were given to other crucial passages, especially to a bonding scene between Desdemona and Othello.
Brian McCann is exceptional. He is an entertainingly diabolical Iago who takes obvious joy in his spitefulness and revels in every aspect of revenge.
McCann gleefully explains all of Iago’s motives. He is an active and inventive agent in carrying out every plot his villainous character conceives. He and Hodge have worked out some wonderful choreography to have Iago poised in a natural, and invisible position, to cut Cassio across his leg when he looks as if he might escape after he kills the hapless Roderigo.
This is one of several well-orchestrated gambits that are admirable on their own and lamentable because they show how much emphasis is placed on Iago and his perfidy at the expense of other equally important matters.
McCann is uncannily quick of mind and foot. Even though Shakespeare supplies the lines, McCann is deft in making you think Iago facilely comes up with excuses, dodges, and exacerbating stories on the spot. This is a feral, ferocious Iago who is as skilled at improvising as he is in acting out meticulously planned maneuvers.
McCann’s talent with Shakespearean language stands out in this cast that has all levels of diction and varying ability to make Shakespeare’s speeches sound natural and spontaneous. McCann is always clear and always knows when to put a dagger into Iago’s utterances. At times, McCann is almost comic in his approach to Iago’s successful doings. He derives that much pleasure from his mischief.
McCann lets you see Iago’s wheels turning. The best part is he can show the Curio audience Iago in the throes of thought while hiding such impressions from other characters. Iago is everyone’s friend on the surface, and McCann makes it convincing that people would put such faith in one who will undermine them with no hesitation or conscience.
Eric Scotolati gives Cassio the jauntiness that comes with confidence and an innate knowledge you are a constant favorite, one that people like to have about them and one they will advance.
Iago is embittered by Cassio’s social ease and more by his social standing. Iago thinks Cassio being a member of Florentine aristocracy swayed Othello’s mind in giving the pedigreed Cassio the lieutenant’s commission ahead of him.
Scotolati conveys Cassio’s conviviality well. To his, and Hodge’s, credit, his scenes with Desdemona are always brotherly and don’t betray a hint of being inappropriately affectionate. Even the scene in which Iago marks Cassio holding Desdemona’s hand registers as a meaningless friendly gesture in this production.
Scotolati is adept at Shakespearean language and can keep his accent, pacing, and clarity when Cassio is succumbing to drinking about five flagons of wine. His manners are courtly when it matters and boyish and soldierly when he is cavorting with his fellow nobles and soldiers and when he is sporting with Bianca.
Scotolati’s is a performance that is complete and natural without being self-conscious. Following his work in “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “Blood Wedding,” Scotolati enters the ranks of local young actors to watch. “Blood Wedding” was a breakthrough role. Scotolati’s Cassio reinforces the impression the actor made in it.
Rachel Gluck’s Emilia is an interesting combination of stridency and warranted forwardness.
This Emilia is no ordinary handmaiden staying demurely in the corner until she must bear witness and testimony to Desdemona’s slaughter by Othello. Gluck is almost aggressive in asserting Emilia’s place as the wife of a high-ranking military office. She is never soft-spoken. The actress’s rich contralto speaking voice doesn’t seem to have a quiet or subtle register.
In early scenes, the loud outspokenness of Emilia is off-putting. Gluck’s tone seems out of kilter with both the passages and Emilia’s place in them. She shows Emilia to be cynical and rather rough compared to the poise and signs of class other characters show.
The established boldness pays off later. Emilia is a tiger while confronting Iago about all he has done to foment the murder of Desdemona. She is a great prosecutor whose eye reeks doubt and disdain on her guilty husband.
Gluck is also effective in the scene in which Desdemona confides in Emilia about the changes in Othello’s affections and the misgivings she has about his attitude and behavior towards her. Gluck’s brassiness turns to maturity and allows Emilia to listen to Desdemona and guide her from experience and wisdom that comes from observing court protocol and manners for some years.
Overall, Gluck’s performance is a success because the energy and passion which she shows in later scenes, especially those immediately before and after Desdemona’s killing, override the jarring nature of earlier sequences. Gluck gives Emilia a presciently resigned expression when she asks Desdemona to reconfirm she should leave her alone in her chamber with Othello.
Steven A. Wright never takes full command as Othello. Even his order to people for and against him to “put up” their swords lacks authority.
Wright has a gripping moment or two. His speech after he has choked and smothered Desdemona is stirring and heartfelt. It is filled with the honest drama that is missing is so much of Wright’s portrayal.
The actor has a habit of grimacing or working his jaw to indicate he is angry or dismayed by information he receives. The effect plays like an expedient shorthand that suggests emotion rather than an expression of pain at hearing unwanted news or horror at being moved to an unwanted passion that will lead with an unwanted act.
Wright’s easy manner concedes the production, and possibly the game Shakespeare plots, to McCann’s Iago. He cannot compete in stage presence with McCann who, catlike, is always listening for his prey to move or make a misstep and is equally ready to pounce decisively when he does.
Wright does not speak with the fluency of McCann, Scotolati, or Gluck, and his dialogue often seems rushed and, at times, mumbled. Shakespeare has written Othello some beautiful speeches, pearls of language meant to beguile the audience as Othello beguiled Desdemona with his war stories. Wright rarely endows them with majesty. His words never have the bite McCann’s or Gluck’s do.
In the first act at Curio, Wright never wrestles focus from McCann. When he comes from his chamber in answer to Brabantio’s confrontation, you should see the Othello that has lived throughout the world and has fought his way to victory as a soldier and to social acceptance on some levels as a man of accomplishment and culture.
Wright does not muster that level of magnitude. Eyes remain on Iago to see what he will do. Eyes continue on Iago when we see how quickly he is willing to court Othello after he’s talked about his hatred for the man to Roderigo and expressed couched but genuine disdain for his general to Brabantio, especially when he describes Othello and Desdemona embroiled in sex to Desdemona’s father.
The first time we see Othello encounter Desdemona, we expect to see the ardor of a newlywed interrupted in consummating his nuptials by Brabantio and urgent Venetian business. Wright remains sanguine when Desdemona is brought before the Duke of Venice in his presence. He remains a courtier who is serious about his demeanor in front of the Duke rather than a man who wants to give up warring and racial prejudice and all else to be with the woman who has just come before his eyes. Isa St. Clair, as Desdemona, is only a little more responsive. The neutrality of both characters loses Hodge the chance to establish the great love between Othello and Desdemona. It is a weakness of the production that is never made up for elsewhere.
Wright shows Othello’s roar in the scene after Cassio, in drunken blindness, stabs Montano as he attempts to break up a fight between him and Roderigo. There some power emerges, but it comes too late. It is also interesting that this is one instance in which McCann’s Iago retreats into the distance more than usual. He makes up for his quiet by dominating the scene in which Othello asks Iago to testify against Cassio and is touched by the way he seems reluctant to reveal Cassio’s drunkenness and put him in the wrong.
Isa St. Clair is a passive Desdemona. She speaks her lines well and carries herself with the dignity and breeding one would expect from a wealthy Venetian woman, but she doesn’t create a bond between Desdemona and the audience that will cause pity for her character beyond the natural revulsion one has about seeing someone unjustly murdered.
Shakespeare makes Desdemona’s case. St. Clair registers with the audience only as a figure doing Shakespeare’s bidding. Hodge’s production gives her little opportunity to create a relationship with Othello, let alone with the audience during Desdemona’s scenes with Othello. But in scenes with Emilia, St. Clair has the chance to give Desdemona endearing traits. She can emphasize her wit and playfulness. Or she can give sincere, impassioned underpinnings to Desdemona’s desire to be a good, dutiful, and affectionate wife to Othello. We are bound to feel for Desdemona when she is pleading for her life and saying honestly that she has known no bedfellow but Othello, but we don’t have a personal stake in her fear, danger, or existence because St. Clair has not been given much time to make Desdemona more than an engine of Shakespeare’s, and Iago’s, plots and show us why Desdemona matters as a woman and as a fellow human being. We need to fall in love with Desdemona as much as Othello (or Roderigo or Iago) does so we feel her loss as more than the unfortunate object of Othello’s wrathful jealousy.
A pleasant and decent performance needs to go one step further and several notches deeper to establish Desdemona as one the audience, and those around her, can’t bear to lose for the elegant and amiable traits she has as a woman. From her work in last year’s “Gint,” I would bet St. Clair, with time and some guidance, could muster more of the performance she needs to make Desdemona a more important and more significant part of this production.
Paul Kuhn’s Roderigo is content to be Iago’s fool.
Roderigo is enlisted to do Iago’s dirty work because he has been a suitor to Desdemona but has not had access to the lady because her father deems him untenable as a choice to be his daughter’s husband. Brabantio knows Roderigo is wealthy, but he also knows he is given to wanton spending and does not demonstrate the class of his breeding,
Kuhn plays Roderigo as anything but noble. His speech, clear and well-pronounced but without an upper class ring, his disheveled clothes, and his scraggly beard do not give one the sense Roderigo and Desdemona are on the same social footing, something that would be critical in both Shakespeare’s Venice and Elizabethan England. We see the rasher, more thuggish side of Roderigo, who is in no way a gentleman and doesn’t look like he’d clean up well.
Kuhn plays the gull well. While he mistrusts Iago and begins the play by asking him to return money he paid him to persuade Brabantio to let him court Desdemona, Roderigo is willing to go along with anything Iago proposes, even if he sees the wickedness and peril in it. He is always willing to be Iago’s financial benefactor and listens with alacrity when Iago tells him to fill his purse and follow the ships to Cyprus.
Again, Hodge has subordinated a character to his use to Iago. Kuhn cringes at Iago’s threats and goes along with his treacherous schemes. He seems a Roderigo who does not his own mind and who is easily led, even to illogical situations.
There’s something Uriah-Heepish in Kuhn’s portrayal. The actor makes Roderigo one of more important figures in Hodge’s production. A little more resistance to Iago, and a lot more nobility are called for, but in the context of the Curio staging, Kuhn does just fine.
Steve Carpenter cuts a good figure as Montano, although the character sometimes appears in scenes that make you wonder why he’s there since Hodge assigns him nothing to do. Carpenter also impresses as the Duke of Venice.
Bob Weick is courtly, the picture of a diplomat in his role of Ludovico, the messenger sent to order Othello home to Venice and a close friend of Brabantio and Desdemona. Weick is caught up in what seems like haste during Brabantio’s scenes. Although he states his character’s case well, he does not come off like a wise senator or wronged father, just a plot device to make Venice’s attitude towards Othello’s race known.
Colleen Hughes acquits herself well in scenes as Bianca. She has the right flounce for a woman who is mistaken for a bawd but is actually a faster than demure single woman on the make for a handsome, successful soldier, Cassio, who has no intention of taking her with him from Cyprus and uses her for sport.
The costumes worn by Emilia and Ludovico look as if they were made from the same cloth and sewn into different but contrapuntal patterns. Emilia’s costume, designed by Aetna Gallagher, looks like a leftover from a play about Anne Boleyn, period headpiece and all. Othello and Cassio are the best dressed, possibly to show their position.
Tim Martin’s lighting is another element that deserves praise for its moodiness and texture one minute and rebuke for flinging so much in the darkness at other times. I thought Desdemona’s murder was going to be done with all the lights out, an interesting choice but one that robs the passage of drama, something that cannot be spared in a head-over-heart production that makes a character study its focal point.
“Othello” runs through Saturday, March 14, at Curio Theatre, 4740 Baltimore Avenue (48th and Baltimore). in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by callin 215-525-1350 or by visiting www.curiotheatre.org.