(Because of Word Press Upgrade bugs, site was unavailable April 7-16, and this review was not posted during the run. Sorry for the delay/inconvenience. – Lynn Venhaus)
By Lynn Venhaus Managing Editor Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” theme is timeless and universal, yes, but a puzzling modern interpretation of “Othello” by St. Louis Shakespeare did not best serve this epic tragedy.
Poor production quality, uneven casting and misguided,
underdeveloped character portrayals didn’t help convey the transition to the 21st
Nevertheless, the show featured several strong performances
and good fight choreography staged by Todd Gillenardo.
If you want to say something about inherent racism then and
now, then say something powerfully. For all the talk in the press release about
turning this 17th century story upside down with a contemporary
slant, director Patrice Foster seemed to take the traditional story route. I
disagreed with the execution of their original concepts, which were not all
Setting the play, which takes place in Venice and Cyprus,
in the 21st Century made no sense whatsoever. Where are we? What
world are we in? And why?
The cities were pretty much interchangeable. Jared Korte’s minimalist
set design reflected none of the exotic foreign world of this tale. Were we to
ascertain this through the Turkish music? The bedroom more akin to a young
single’s first apartment? If you are tackling xenophobia, then show it!
Based on another source material, “Un Capitano Moro” by
Cinthio, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is believed to have been written around 1603.
The Bard took the big emotions of life – love, jealousy, revenge, betrayal and
loss – to illustrate bigotry, showing how a Moorish general in the Venetian
army could be revered for his military prowess and then disdained for marrying
The couple can’t be happy because their enemy sets up a
tangled web of deceit and manipulation in order to destroy their union.
His miffed ensign Iago schemes to convince Othello that his
wife Desdemona is having an affair with former suitor Cassio, supposedly in an
effort for Roderigo to woo her instead, but really, for him to surpass Othello
in power and prestige.
In a towering performance, Reginald Pierre is compelling as
the African general whose jealousy and misplaced allegiance prove to be his
downfall. The larger-than-life role fit Pierre, who is a master at delivering
Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. A veteran of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
and Rebel and Misfits Productions’ two immersive Shakespeare presentations,
Pierre commands attention no matter what role.
He glided persuasively between scenes portraying the
victorious general, passionate newlywed and how he’s too trusting of what he’s
told. Alas, Othello allowed the lies to get inside his head, and then is
doomed. Pierre was convincing in his struggles and how he grappled with
Bridgette Bassa said her lines well as Desdemona, but
physically, her petite stature is such a sharp contrast to Pierre’s height, and
they did not have much chemistry. Nevertheless, the bedroom death scene is brimming
with intense emotions as Othello seethes with rage and Desdemona pleads for her
life, even though they changed the killing method.
While Bassa has often been cast in roles she has been too
young or too old for and pulled them off, Desdemona’s appearance is wrong here.
She looks like a teenager in a simple junior frock and summer wedges that don’t
visually establish a sultry woman.
Phil Leveling smartly portrayed the complexities of Cassio,
realizing his reputation is ruined and how he’s been used. As the rich suitor
Roderigo, Jesse Munoz had the right approach, and Will Pendergast and Victor
Mendez suited their soldier roles.
Troublesome is Cynthia Pohlson’s decision to portray Iago
as broad as a Disney villain. If you view Iago, Othello’s ambitious, bitter and
sneaky ensign as a more cunning figure, then you might be as disappointed as I
was, particularly at the intrusive cackling and the exaggerated street gang
As his wife Emilia, Hillary Gokenbach grew into the role,
and had a superb second act.
A company who has Shakespeare in the title should be able
to work with inexperienced cast members on how to not deliver the Bard’s lines
in sing-song fashion, which often happens.
The challenges of Shakespeare need to be overcome if an
ensemble is to be convincing. It didn’t help that some of the well-meaning
supporting cast players were too young for their parts – Brad Kinzel as
Desdemona’s furious dad Brabantio and Mike Stephens as the Duke of Venice.
Circling back to the stumbling block of the modern setting,
if the deception hinges on an embroidered handkerchief, switching the era to the
21st century makes no sense because no one uses handkerchiefs any
more, and really haven’t for 50 years. This is a relic of the past that’s key
to the original story but useless in new version.
In production values, Ted Drury’s sound design was fine, but the subpar staging didn’t establish the setting, and the party dance scene wasn’t as festive as it should have been. The costumes appeared to be from people’s closets, except for bulk military camoflauge outfits.
If Shakespeare presentations require fight choreographers,
should not they focus on line delivery as well? Character development is always
Unlocking the meaning of Shakespeare is as thrilling as
recognizing the source of the Shakespeare phrases that’s become part of the
modern lexicon, and when everyone can bring those words to life, it makes a
world of difference.
The new performance space at Tower Grove Baptist Church has
possibilities. I hope the future bodes well there.
Louis Shakespeare presented “Shakespeare’s Othello” April 5-13 at Tower Grove
Baptist Church, 4257 Magnolia. For more information, visit www.stlshakespeare.org
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.