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Situation Tragedy 

If Othello isn't, as playwright Paula Vogel put it, just a play about a handkerchief, then what lies at the heart of this tragic delve into some of the ugliest human qualities -- jealousy, deception, vengefulness, and the self-loathing in which they find root? AimŽe Michel's recent direction at The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane emphasizes the play's feminist undercurrent -- a glowingly positive strain in a drama otherwise as dark as they come. Lines spoken by Andrea Frankle, as Desdemona, and Lara Grice, as Emilia, show women so vibrantly strong that the words' penning by a man in the early 1600s almost defies belief. William Shakespeare, of course, was no ordinary man. But when Emilia says that males "are all but stomachs, and we are all but food: they eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us," how can any woman, anywhere, in any century, not think Shakespeare was a pretty cool guy?

Vogel was onto something. Othello, as Shakespeare's tragedies go, is an especially predictable one. We see the machinations of the story grinding in a way that Hamlet's waffling and Lear adrift in the storm don't fall prey to. And the plot does hinge on that fatal wisp of fabric. It's a situation tragedy whose climax is predicated on an accident -- a token of affection left lying on the ground.

In many renderings, Othello is about the deep-seeded insecurity inherent in being an outsider -- in this case, a black man hired into a white world. The Moorish general Othello has ascended both military and social ranks in Venice, and his traversing in these circles brought him to Desdemona, the much-sought-after daughter of a senator. Despite entertaining Othello regularly, Desdemona's father essentially disowns her when he finds she has married a black man.

Tony Molina, in the most affecting performance I've seen in my nearly three years in New Orleans, makes Othello so radiantly self-confident that it's hard to believe he could fall prey to the slick, charming salesman of Gavin Mahlie's Iago. Othello's handsome costumes of vaguely North African garb, in contrast to the Western attire worn by everyone else, would seem to indicate a level of comfort, even pride, in his outsider status. It's only in fleeting moments -- after Desdemona's father disavows her -- that he betrays a hint of vulnerability.

Part of the problem is Mahlie's Iago. One of Shakespeare's most nefarious villains, Iago is more protagonist than Othello. Iago acts, while Othello is acted on -- played like a pipe, as Hamlet puts it in the player's speech. Mahlie gives a clear, assured performance. His gestures and line readings seem crafted to perfection. Iago is a show stealer, and the audience at the last preview performance seemed won over. But while fascinating, Mahlie's rendition rarely transcends the self-consciously cunning. He is brilliant in overtly smarmy moments, as when, in a great piece of stage business, he pulls the aforementioned handkerchief from his wife's bosom with his teeth. But he never seems convincingly genuine when he needs to be, making even Othello, inclined to see good in everyone, too trusting to be believed.

This is especially true because some of the strongest scenes are those fleeting moments in which Othello and Desdemona show their love. More than anywhere else, this seems to be the payoff of seeing a real-life married couple in these roles. Their love onstage is palpable -- it seems to emanate from every look, touch and word, making Othello's violence toward her all the more horrifying, if a little a little less magically real. He shines more in later monologues -- "Put out the light, and then put out the light," spoken to a candle right before her murder, is especially chilling. In the murder scene itself and the subsequent bloodshed and unraveling, all the actors go for broke physically and emotionally as they strangle, stab and flee from each other. They don't always pull it off -- a technically difficult feat -- but it's a brave attempt that may improve over the course of the run.

In excellent performances, Frankle's Desdemona and Grice's Emilia percolate with a strength that inspires both empathy and respect. Director Michel and Grice play up Emilia's sexuality, making clear her love and desire for her husband and his obvious neglect of her. The moving scene between Emilia and Desdemona toward the play's denouement, in which Emilia posits that women are every bit men's equals in both good and bad, is the most -- perhaps the only -- uplifting part of the play. Although these women are betrayed in the ultimate way by the men who should love them most, as played beautifully by both actresses, the women's love for each other provides a good deal of solace.

Sean Patterson as Cassio, another pawn in Iago's manipulations, gives a polished performance. Costumes by Joan Long are neutral and elegant. The set, by Hugh Lester, while less of an eyesore than its splatter-painted predecessor for Merchant of Venice, is still a drab, stained, monolithic wall. One would think the Festival's resources could provide better. Overall, performances by the main players make this the strongest production I've seen to date from The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. Let's hope it's a harbinger of more to come.

click to enlarge Real-life married couple Andrea Frankle (as Desdemona) - and Tony Molina (Othello) provided stirring - performances in the lead roles of The Shakespeare - Festival at TulaneÕs mounting of Othello.
  • Real-life married couple Andrea Frankle (as Desdemona) and Tony Molina (Othello) provided stirring performances in the lead roles of The Shakespeare Festival at TulaneÕs mounting of Othello.
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