‘The Moor’ redefines racial roles, issues

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March 28, 2008

4:16 AM

__A critic takes a closer look at Shakespeare in the Dark’s unique twist on this classic play__

p. Exploring themes of interracial tension, jealousy and love, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is as pertinent today as it was when it was written. The play tells the story of a romance between Othello the moor (as North Africans were referred to in the 17th Century), and Desdemona, a Venetian senator’s daughter. Othello struggles against racial prejudice and the machinations of the villainous Iago as he is ensnared in a web of suspicion and envy.

p. One of the many surprises of this rendition of “Othello” is director Mike Mott’s ’08 choice to cast Rolfe Shiflett ’09 in the lead role. Though I was initially skeptical of the decision to cast a white Othello, after watching him perform, the intensity he brought to the stage convinced me of his ability to capture the role of a man tortured by distrust. His passion was complemented by Zan Gillies’ ’09 (Iago) gleefully vicious plotting of Othello’s downfall. Another noteworthy performance was that of Molly Marie Fitzhugh ’11 as Desdemona, whose chemistry with Shifflett was palpable. They make an excellent couple, rendering the play’s tragic conclusion all the more heartbreaking.

p. Fans of physical action are sure to be pleased by the play’s numerous fight scenes. While somewhat rough around the edges, they are impressively choreographed and executed with startling physicality. The same can be said of the dialogue, clumsy at times, but such flaws should be ironed out by the first performance tonight.

p. The pacing of the performance is somewhat irregular. When it’s going strong, it’s great fun to watch, but the play can drag in its slow-paced sections. At times, the play becomes a blur of talking heads – far too static, especially when compared to how dynamic the performances are during the play’s more dramatic scenes. It’s hard to sit still and listen to dialogue after watching two drunks fling each other across the stage. These slow scenes are worth sitting through in the end, but their pacing could have been tightened.

p. This set is more elaborate than that of previous Shakespeare in the Dark performances, but stays true to the group’s usual minimalist aesthetic. The play’s main backdrop is a banner from the ceiling of the UC Commonwealth Auditorium to the stage, the light blue starkly contrasting the black curtains. Small touches like Desdemona’s bedside table are just concrete enough to provide context to the action. This time around, Shakespeare in the Dark utilizes more complex lighting than it has previously, and the extra work pays off in a deepened sense of place and time. In particular, the play’s violent conclusion is made dreamlike and surreal through the use of soft blue lighting. This attention to atmosphere makes “Othello” truly stand out from the company’s past performances.

p. The costuming and use of props has similarly been made more elaborate. The costumes consist primarily of military jackets and shirts, and actors call one another on their cell phones. In addition, players wield both archaic daggers and modern pistols during fight scenes. Despite these modernizations, “Othello” remains true to the original text of the play, set in 17th Century Cyprus. This blending of eras creates a surreal presentation that befits the timelessness of Shakespeare.

p. Spectators should be prepared not to only watch, but to be pulled into the action at several points during the performance. The boxlike arrangement of the seating allows viewers to get a closer look at the performance, something the actors make good use of through audience interaction. The audience can become intimately enmeshed in the drama in a way that is typically unavailable at larger, main-stage productions.

p. “Othello” is a strong addition to Shakespeare in the Dark’s repertoire. It expands upon past shows, and ups the standard for the future. Fans of the Bard will enjoy seeing how this rendering of “Othello” has been brought to the stage, while the surreal performance and physical action are good incentives for those who aren’t necessarily drawn to traditional Shakespeare.

p.The show opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the UC Commonweath. Shows are also Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $4 and can be purchased at the door.

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