Bay Area Theater Review: OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE (Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley)

by Stacy Trevenon on April 11, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

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A GRIPPING PLUNGE INTO THE DARK SIDE

Watching Marin Theatre Company’s Othello, I wondered if William Shakespeare was determined – with teeth-gritted ferocity – to make the audience squirm with the effort of holding back shouts of warning and outrage. While Elizabethan audiences were uncensored, presumably barking back to the stage at any of the Bard’s plays, this gripping and compelling version in Mill Valley so relentlessly draws in the spectator that a silent reaction may take an effort. The story’s painstaking exploration of the unleashed demons of carnage, duplicity, and jealousy is intensely heightened by no-holds-barred acting and a Renaissance setting which creates a particularly smooth partnering of language and story.

A haunting tone is set from the start with yearning madrigals and Dan Hiatt’s overwrought Brabantio, rising to a fever pitch but never sliding into caricature in his outrage over his daughter’s marriage to the Moor. As Othello, Aldo Billingslea admirably swings from doting husband to driven madman with superlative vocal technique:  he imbues his words, both tender and agonized, with a musical dialect that substantiates the setting, as well as Othello’s state of mind.

The relationship between Othello and the snake-in-the-grass Iago (a deceptively upstanding-looking Craig Marker) evokes strong emotion: we feel helpless to stop their inevitable plunge toward disaster, yet remain fascinated by the complex web of Iago’s psychological machinations. The momentum between the two characters gets off to a slightly slow start, as Iago, passed over by his general Othello for promotion, loudly bemoans his wrongs and plots vengeance even as Othello jovially claps him on the shoulder; eventually, Marker and Billingslea build a razor-sharp and gripping intensity, authenticating a sense of inevitable doom.

At the crux of this emotional cauldron is Desdemona, whose beauty, purity, innocence, shock, and bewilderment are perfectly rendered by Mairin Lee, making her death throes particularly painful to watch. She, along with Nicholas Pelczar’s boyishly bumbling Roderigo and Patrick Russell’s fresh-faced pawn Cassio, underscore the very human and very fateful nature of the play.  Others of the cast’s nine actors cover multiple roles, and their line renderings and tight characterizations make Shakespeare’s florid language easy to follow for the amateur Shakespeare viewer.

Director Jasson Minadakis’ decision to make Bianca (Rinabeth Apostol) and Aemilia (Liz Sklar) mercenary soldiers is risky, but effective. It not only emphasized the brutal military setting but also illustrated the randomness of wars’ participants and their impersonal and unforgiving circumstances (it also gives costume designer Fumiko Bielefeldt the opportunity to contrast the dangling weapons on the soldiers with Desdemona’s pale gossamer gown).

Kurt Landisman’s slanted lighting adds tension by illuminating characters’ inner processes. Scenic designer J.B. Wilson’s large, textured set epitomizes the tone of the play with walls of dark stone; the white-sheeted and fateful bed is designed like an altar which dazzles with light amid the dark surroundings.  While the direction is successfully minimal and subtle, the stage combat laid out by fight director Dave Maier is explosive; the final scenes, with mayhem and murder roiling about Desdemona’s serene corpse, bring the story to urgent life in a way straightforward storytelling could not. The final picture – that ultimate moment of Othello’s overwhelming remorse and Iago’s stony stoicism – will stay with you long after the show.

photos by David Allen

Othello, the Moor of Venice
Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley (Bay Area Theater)
scheduled to end on April 22

for tickets, visit http://www.marintheatre.org or call (415) 388-5208

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