Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Othello" with no holes, Bard

Cleveland Press August 24, 1979

The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival has saved the best until last with its production of "Othello," the finest staging of the play in this area that I can recall.

"Othello," the last in the Festival's series of six plays this season, opened last night.

It is a production that is served magnificently by guest actor Clayton Corbin who both physically and vocally dominates the evening.

His Portrayal of Othello is emotionally charged, a steady progression of calm general and loving husband to a man driven murderously insane by jealousy.

After he has murdered Desdemona and learned of Iago's treachery he utters a cry of pain that is a vocal manifestation of a dying soul.

There are moments like that throughout the evening -- the signs of growing suspicion, the outbursts of anger, the rage of jealousy, the quiet moments of tenderness.

Many good actors can master such extremes. What is remarkable about Corbin's performance is that he can make the intervening moments just as moving, just as convincing.

It is a portrayal that builds steadily, that peaks frequently at minor emotional climaxes and then climbs higher for the next one until it arrives at the shattering conclusion.

When it happens, he is like a stunned animal who recovers only to find himself trapped and about to be hounded to death.

It must have been an emotionally charged performance such as this that convinced Verdi to turn the play into grand opera.

Corbin dominates the stage physically as well as vocally. He stands taller than anyone. He speaks with the authority of a general. Even when his voice drops to a whisper it is one that holds your attention.

He brings maturity as well as skill to the role. And, best of all, he is thoroughly at home with Shakespeare's lines making them both meaningful and understandable.

Robert Elliott's lago is an excellent foil to Corbin's Othello. Elliott does not fall into the trap of overdoing the villainy, of snickering in his asides or of mocking Othello. (I have a dreadful memory o£ another portrayal of Iago in which the actor seemed to be imitating James Cagney.)

As the play progresses it is an lago who becomes more dour, more serious, more aware of the thin edge on which he is balancing.

Vincent Dowling's direction of the play should not be overlooked in the total effect this production achieves.

The action is played out on plain gray platforms against a black background. The main platform is not the usual square or rectangle but a circle. There are risers on each side.

It is in this circle that the main action takes place. It is here that the placid Othello is annoyed and then goaded until he becomes an enraged bull. It is here that the matador-like lago keeps thrusting at him, keeps waving that handkerchief like a red banner.

Iago may be the most famous villain in the theater but his motives have always remained muddy. Did he do what he did because he was passed over for promotion or because he suspected that his wife was once Othello's lover? Both are clear enough in this production.

But why did Othello accept Iago's charges against Desdemona? In a scene that is certain to be controversial, Dowling has the two men arguing, Othello becoming slowly convinced and then embracing and kissing lago.

Don't read anything into this except friendship. I didn't. While it is not fashionable today to suggest a strong bond of friendship between members of the same sex, it once was.

These are two soldiers, men who have gone through much together. Othello accepts Iago as a friend, as his best friend and so true a friend that he would believe him before he would believe his wife.

It makes all of Othello's good words about Iago ring with greater sincerity.

"Othello" is not an indictment of friendship but of the casual acceptance of circumstantial evidence.

Without reinterpreting, Dowling's direction brings much of the play into better focus. He does several other things which might have seemed good in the planning stages and which certainly are interesting, but turn out to be unneeded.

One is the use of bits from a ballad called "Othello" which capsules the action from time to time. The play is clear enough without them. They just make the evening longer.

Another is the use of visuals, projected pictures on a circle at the back of the stage. These represent Venice and Cyprus, bits of building exteriors and interiors, the moon in various sizes and one that looked for all the world like a hub cap. Most of them could have been skipped.

Madylon Branstetter is a charming and soft-spoken Desdemona who comes into her own in a touching portrayal during the death scene. Kate McGregor-Stewart is impressive as Emilia.

"Othello" requires a large cast. Some of the people in smaller roles were only fair. This isn't terribly important until the end when some of these minor characters clean up the loose ends after Othello is dead (along with Desdemona and Emilia) and Iago is captured. One wishes that the play had ended with Othello's "he loved not wisely but too well" line.

But these are minor flaws in a production that is overwhelming in its ability to evoke an emotional reaction, to offer not one but several spine-tingling moments.