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Othello: With And Without Words

By • Oct 26th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Othello
Synetic Theater
Synetic Theater in Crystal City, Arlington, VA
Through November 6th
85 minutes, no intermission
$45-55 (Discounts available)
Reviewed October 21st, 2011
Othello
Folger Theatre
Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Washington DC
Through December 4th
2:35 with intermission
$30-65
Reviewed October 23rd, 2011

Two worthy productions of Othello opened last weekend, one a mounting of the Shakespeare play, in all its verbal glory, by the Folger Theatre, and the other as part of Synetic Theater’s “Silent Shakespeare Festival.” The latter, a revival of Synetic’s multiple Helen Hayes Award-winning 2010 production, is presented in the company’s trademark wordless (though given the pervasive, and sometimes overbearing, musical score, hardly “silent”) style.

Both approaches are highly successful, but it must be emphasized that they are very different kinds of art. In a program note, Synetic director Paata Tsikurishvili asserts that “For me, Shakespeare’s plays are written in a universal language.” Well, actually, they are written in English, and adaptations of Shakespeare plays in mediums that do not involve performers speaking the words he wrote can be valid, even triumphant, works, but they are not performances of Shakespeare plays. Kurasowa’s Throne of Blood, Verdi’s Otello, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story, comic Broadway pieces like Kiss Me Kate, and ballets like Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are examples that come readily to mind.

Tsikurishvili’s Othello, a spectacular movement/multimedia piece based on the characters and plotline of the Shakespeare play, falls into this honorable category. It is almost impossible to overstate the energy and virtuosity of Synetic’s performers, whose movement veers seamlessly from romantic dance to stage combat to comedy to acrobatics to sudden violence.

The stagecraft is equally impressive. The costumes, mostly done in red, white, and black, not only look good but flow beautifully with the show’s movement. The set features a group of tall, movable triangles, the arrangement of which cuts the upstage visual space into additional triangular forms. The triangle motif is carried over into some set dressing pieces (like a game board) and even into the costuming (triangular wedges in some of the male performers’ headpieces). Much of the lighting consists of conical light shapes that carry forward a solid geometry suggestive of the set’s triangles. With the exception of one over-the-top special on Desdemona’s handkerchief (itself seemingly the size of a small tablecloth), the lighting works well with the mood and action of the performance. At several points, with the stage lights dark, performers use what appear to be powerful LED flashlights to illuminate others’ faces, the harsh blue-white light adding to the mood of the scenes.

Synetic’s take on the central character of its piece, the villain Iago, also follows the triangular theme of the physical production, itself perhaps a reference to the love/hate triangle of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago. Played simultaneously by three performers (Phillip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishvili, and Alex Mills), Iago has much in him of the mythical trickster, working his evil as if by magic. The other characters’ fatal trust in Iago’s honesty, so important in the Shakespeare play, is deemphasized in this concept.

The Folger’s Iago (Ian Merrill Peakes) is a smiling, good-humored con man, skillfully confiding in the audience, with evident enjoyment, his plans for ruining Othello and others. Iago’s intimate relationship with the audience, making it almost complicit in his schemes, is a key element in the play, an element lacking in the Synetic’s treatment of the character. The currency of Peakes’ Iago is the trust his charm and seemingly candid nature engender in his marks. He is a kind of Bernie Madoff figure who steals the hearts and lives of others rather than their money.

One of the interesting aspects of Iago’s character, highlighted in Peakes’ performance, is that, as successful as he is in manipulating others, he is far less successful, and his confident demeanor slips, when he must take direct action himself, as in his murders of Rodriego and Emilia and his attack on Cassio. He is better at planning than improvisation.

Othello is a career soldier. Synetic’s Othello, Roger Payano, is physically imposing, with a convincing military bearing. He does excellent stage combat and generally conveys a relatively still dignity amidst the constant movement of the production. In concert with the technical production, he has a particularly effective moment as he strives to keep separated two of the triangular set pieces, bearing video images of Cassio and Desdemona (taken and edited by IagoX3), as he imagines their supposed affair. As a depiction of a character in turmoil, this moment is notably more effective than its counterpart in the Folger production, in which Owiso Odera resorts to somewhat histrionic line delivery. Odera’s physicality in the role – many bends and dips and abrupt hand and head movements – does not much resemble that of a military man, undercutting the power of the character that makes his fall more poignant. Odera’s strongest scenes are his last two, as he prepares to kill Desdemona and learns that he has been gulled, making his decision for suicide with great dignity.

The concept underlying the Folger production is to set the action during the Crusades, such that Othello’s “otherness” is as much a matter of religion (while a Christian, he comes from a Muslim society) as race. This concept makes sense as one reads the program notes, though its difference from other versions of the play is less striking on stage. Nonetheless, Othello’s otherness is a key element of the production, particularly as motivation for Iago’s animosity toward him. By contrast, Othello’s otherness is largely lost as a factor in the Synetic production. True, Payano is an African-American actor dressed in black, and the audience brings its knowledge of American racism to any production of Othello, but for all the difference it makes to the apparent motivations of the other characters, Othello’s race is almost a neutral factor in the production.

Desdemona is often overshadowed in productions of the play, but Janie Brookshire’s performance makes sure that doesn’t happen in the Folger version. Her Desdemona is not simply an innocent victim, but a vibrant young woman in love who, to the end, does not allow Othello’s abuse to break her spirit. Her costuming in a blue dress through most of the show is a welcome change from the more usual all-white motif, underlining her full humanity in contrast to her being presented as an abstraction of purity. Salma Shaw’s Desdemona in the Synetic show, who is costumed all in symbolic white, finds it more difficult to escape being an abstract object of male possession and jealousy, though her vertical death scene is far more arresting visually than Folger’s more traditional strangulation on the bed.

Among Synetic’s supporting cast, Vato Tsikurishvili makes an impression playing Roderigo as a youngish doofus with a droopy flower. In the Folger show, Louis Butelli plays the same role as an old fool who appears all too eager to be deceived. His almost willful gullibility makes his comedy a bit too annoyingly forced. The Folger’s Emilia (Karen Peakes) has a memorable comic scene, just before Desdemona’s murder, in which she comments on relations between men and women in a way that could fit into The Taming of the Shrew without undue difficulty. Peakes portrays vividly Emila’s outrage when she discovers her husband’s perfidy and her courage as she denounces him.

The Folger’s production emphasizes the comedy inherent in the script, not only in the supporting characters but particularly in Iago, especially before intermission. The twists and betrayals that move the plot forward do not differ greatly from the kind of setups that lead to happier endings when the playwright desires (e.g., the Don John/Claudio/Hero plot in Much Ado About Nothing). There is some comic relief in the Synetic production as well, much of it coming as the result of an acting style in some sequences that is reminiscent of classic silent movie comedies.

The Synetic production includes a prologue, not part of Shakespeare’s script (though deriving in part from some references in the play’s early scenes), depicting a backstory for Othello, Desdemona, and Iago. The prologue provides an occasion for an extended stage combat sequence in which Othello, having escaped being a galley slave, impresses the Venetian powers that be with his bravery and military prowess. It also provides an opportunity to see Othello and Desdemona falling in love, not long after Othello’s unnamed other lover has died in the galleys, and to see Iago’s growing jealousy of the praise Othello receives. Adding this prologue is an interesting and, to some degree, rewarding choice, though one that underlines that we are seeing Tsikurishvili’s Othello rather than Shakespeare’s.

The technical aspects of the Folger production are strong throughout, particularly the sumptuous, colorful Middle Eastern-influenced setting of the Cyprus scenes. (The Middle Eastern motif is emphasized by the nice choice of making Zehra Fazal’s Bianca a belly dancer.) The lighting is effective in setting the moods of various scenes, and the sound design – albeit with the volume cranked to near-painful levels at some points – likewise ably complements the action. Director Robert Richmond sets a considerable amount of the play’s action, including some of the stage combat, in the center aisle, creating – along with Iago’s seduction of the audience – a feeling of intimacy in the production.

For all the differences between their approaches to Othello, the two directors make an almost identical choice of how to conclude the play, focusing – as does its beginning – on Iago. It’s a memorable image to end two memorable productions.

Othello by Synetic Theater – Director’s Note

Growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the former Soviet Union, I often dreamed of performing and producing American theater. My career as an artist led me from the Republic of Georgia around Europe and finally to the United States. And over the last ten years, my wife Irina and I have dedicated our lives to building a company in our Nation’s capital that combines all our passions and fuses multiple art forms: Synetic Theater.

Since Synetic’s inception, we have worked with “the art of silence.” Our debut production, Hamlet…the rest is silence, was our first effort to take the words from one of the most iconic works of drama in history and tell the story with a different vocabulary. Far from being a mere twist on Shakespeare, however, this production heralded the start of our exploration of a new form of theater. Since that first piece, we have produced six additional original “Silent Shakespeare” productions, which have been key to our overwhelming success and recognition, as these productions have received incredible critical and audience acclaim as well as garnered 45 Helen Hayes Nominations and 16 awards.

Newcomers to Synetic may think there is contradiction inherent in all of our acclaimed wordless Shakespeare adaptations: how is it that these timeless works can be performed without the essential text? For me, Shakespeare’s plays are written in a universal language, having been translated and adapted for audiences around the globe. And in fact, the text serves as a basis in all our work: it provides us not only with the story but incredible imagery, archetypes and metaphor, all of which are heightened to create an immersive stage experience that we feel “in our bones.”

I chose [Othello and two other] productions to showcase our incredible range and fusion of techniques that we have incorporated over the years – such as balancing tragedy with comedic elements, integrating fight choreography into dance sequences, using multi-media to enhance the visual experience, utilizing a highly-trained company of actors to create the atmosphere and set, all the while set to a dramatic soundscape – and to lay the foundation for a touring company.

Othello is a deeply psychological play and allows us to play freely in the surreal and abstract work, in which Iago is literally fractured by jealously, envy and ambition, in which Othello’s own dark thoughts and imagination are brought to life in on-stage projections, and in which, when seen in the right light, the most beautiful gesture can bring about the greatest tragedy.

As always, I give my thanks to my faithful actors, designers, and production and administrative staff, who have generously committed to this unique program. Thanks also to our audiences, Board of Directors, donors, volunteers and the D. C. theater community as a whole for their continued generosity and support in spreading the word about our programs.

Enjoy the “unquiet silence” of Synetic!

Othello by Folger Theater – Director’s Notes

Othello is a play that has always fascinated me, not just for its superb writing, but also because of the complete delight an audience experiences in being so complicit in the action. Other than Iago, not one of Shakespeare’s characters–with the possible exception of Prince Hamlet and Richard III–takes us so deeply into his confidence, explains his rationale, and then sets about a course of villainous actions that we are made aware of before the victims experience them. Why do we not leap from our seats and cry out for Iago to stop? Why do we not inform the innocent of the ambush that has been set for them? Why do we sit and delight in this macabre, charming, and ruthless man’s success?

The dark, physiological, and exotic nature of the play made me think hard about this production’s setting. To a Jacobean audience, Venice represented a cultured world where law and strong Christian beliefs were upheld. By contrast, Cyprus might have suggested the complete opposite: a Mediterranean island of the “other,” of barbarism and evil forces. I looked for a world where Venetians, Cypriots, Turks, and Moors might co-exist–a time when conflict and mistrust between people was abundant, where racial divides were defined by religion. It became clear that the world I was looking for was the Christian Crusades of the 13th century and that Othello might take place on Cyprus during a holy war, with the Knights Templar fighting the Muslims.

Learning that Cyprus was in fact a very strategic point for many of the Crusades and that in 1202 Venice was the rendezvous for the fourth Crusade, I felt that the period and style would suit this production very well. Within this context the references in the text to witchcraft and the black arts–allegedly used by Othello to woo Desdemona–became very potent. It also made sense of how he justifies her murder as a “sacrifice,” a necessary purification. I could imagine the powerful religious insignia on the clothes of this period, the chivalry of the Knights Templar, and the determination of an iconoclastic central character to affect and destroy the noblest, most virtuous, and most stoic of this time.

So why might we side with or be drawn to Iago when we know many of his reasons to be false? Might we share some commonality with him? Certainly we still live in a world of hate crimes and racial profiling. We often choose to fear and remain ignorant of those whose faith may differ from our own–Christian, Muslim, or otherwise. Resentment can still be felt when an “outsider” is accepted and embraced by the ruling hierarchy. Might there be a little part of Iago in us all? Perhaps, when we laugh at, or with, this pernicious villain, we recognize a bigotry that lies deep with in us.

I hope you’ll enjoy Othello.

Synetic Theater – Othello – Photo Gallery

Salma Shaw as Desdemona and Roger Payano as Othello Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishvili, and Alex Mill as Iago
Salma Shaw as Desdemona and Roger Payano as Othello
Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishvili, and Alex Mill as Iago
Scott Brown as Cassio, Roger Payano as Othello, and Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishvili, and Alex Mill as Iago Scott Brown as Cassio and Vato Tsikurishvili as Roderigo
Scott Brown as Cassio, Roger Payano as Othello, and Philip Fletcher, Irina Tsikurishvili, and Alex Mill as Iago
Scott Brown as Cassio and Vato Tsikurishvili as Roderigo

Photos by Graeme B. Shaw

Folger Theatre – Othello – Photo Gallery

(Center) Janie Brookshire as Desdemona and Owiso Odera as Othello with the cast of Shakespeare's Othello Owiso Odera as Othello and Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago
(Center) Janie Brookshire as Desdemona and Owiso Odera as Othello with the cast of Shakespeare’s Othello
Owiso Odera as Othello and Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago
Janie Brookshire as Desdemona Owiso Odera in the title role of Shakespeare's Othello
Janie Brookshire as Desdemona
Owiso Odera in the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello

Photos by Carol Pratt

Synetic Theater – Othello – Cast

  • Othello: Roger Payano
  • Desdemona: Salma Shaw
  • Cassio: Scott Brown
  • Iago: Philip Fletcher
  • Iago: Irina Tsikurishvili
  • Iago: Alex Mills
  • Emilia: Irina Koval
  • Roderigo: Vato Tsikurishvili
  • Bianca: Sarah Taurchini
  • Duke: Peter Pereyra
  • Brabantio: Hector Reynoso
  • Ensemble: Irina Kavasdze
  • Ensemble: Brittany O’Grady
  • Ensemble: JB Tadena
  • Ensemble: Dallas Tolentino

Synetic Theater – Othello – Production Staff

  • Director: Paata Tsikurishvili
  • Choreographer: Irina Tsikurishvili
  • Set and Costume Design: Anastasiaa R. Simes
  • Lighting Design: Andrew F. Griffin
  • Original Music: Konsantine Lortkipanidze
  • Sound Design: Krakli Kavsadze and Konstantine Lortkipanidze
  • Stage Manager: Erin Baxter
  • Design Assistant: Elizabeth Ennis
  • Assistant Lighting Designer: Brittany Diliberto
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Marley Monk
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda Rhodes
  • Production Intern: Scott Tusing
  • Photographer: Graeme B. Shaw
  • Videographer: Clint Herring
  • Graphic Designer: Aram Asarian
  • Additional Music: Giya Kancheli:
  • Technical Director: Phil Charlwood
  • Production Supervisor: Erin Baxter
  • Associate Production Manager: Jonathan Weinberg
  • Lighting Supervisor: Andrew F. Griffin
  • Master Electrician: Aaron Waxman
  • Wardrobe: Crystal Fergusson
  • Programmer: Ryan Logue
  • Costume Construction: Irina Evans, Yuliya Kolesnik, Christel Stevens, Elvina Verzhichinskaya

Folger Theatre – Othello – Cast

  • Iago: Ian Merrill Peakes
  • Roderigo: Louis Butelli
  • Othello: Owiso Odera
  • Brabantio: Jeff Allin
  • Cassio: Thomas Keegan
  • The Duke/Gratiano: Todd Scofield
  • Lodovico: Joe Guzman
  • Desdemona: Janie Brookshire
  • Montano: Chris Genebach
  • Emilia: Karen Peakes
  • Bianca: Zehra Fazal

Folger Theatre – Othello – Production Staff

  • Director: Robert Richmond
  • Artistic Producer: Janet Alexander Griffin
  • Assistant Artistic Producer: Beth Emelson
  • General Manager: Giuseppe DeBartolo
  • Theatre Production Manager: Charles Flye
  • Composer: Anthony Cochrane
  • Scenic Design: Tony Cisek
  • Costume Design: William Ivey Long
  • Lighting Design: Andrew F. Griffin
  • Sound Design: Matthew M. Nielson
  • Fight Choreographer: Casey Dean Kaleba
  • Resident Dramaturg: Michele Osherow
  • Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman
  • Assistant Technical Director: Rebekah Scheffer
  • Casting Assistant: Lisa Forrest
  • Assistant Director: Sasha Bratt
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Eric Arnold
  • Production Assistant: Kirsten Parker
  • Dramaturg Assistants: Allison Buccca, Alex Calvin
  • Voice Coach: Gary Logan
  • Scenic Design Assistant/Prop Master: Daniel da Cruz Pinha
  • Scenery Construction: Bella Faccia
  • Drapery Fabrication: Rosebrand
  • Scenic Charge: Mariana Fernandez
  • Prop Assistant: Melissa Wunder
  • Associate Costume Designer: Mariah Hale
  • WIL Studio Director: Donald Sanders
  • Costume Assistant/Wardrobe Head: Sara Jane Palmer
  • Wig Designer: Heather Fleming
  • Master Electrician: Amber Meade
  • Electricians: Brian Allard, Karen Bilotti, Garth Dolan, Reuven Goren
  • Light Board Operator: Karen Bilotti
  • Sound Head: Matthew M. Nielson
  • Sound Board Operator: Brandon Roe
  • Promotional Photography: James Kegley
  • Production Photography: Carol Pratt
  • Promotional Video: Mark Fastoso, Heather Daniels
  • Archival Recording: WAPAVA
  • Open Captioning: C2 Inc.

Disclaimer: Synetic Theater and Folger Theatre each provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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