St. Louis Black Rep’s “Othello”: Passionate performance meets passionate audience
There is no curtain on the starkly evocative stage. We begin. After the first few minutes, our ears tune to the language of long-ago times, and we, the audience, drop into another world...a world parallel to the one Shakespeare created in his text, and at the same time, a world entirely on-center with the one he created. (Read director Chris Anthony’s letter in the post below.)
William Shakespeare (baptised 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616)
Frankly, the acting is so good, I don’t care where we are. I don’t care if we are in Venice and Cyprus as in the original text or in New Orleans (the Venice here) or Cuba (the Cyprus here). I’m in my theatre seat in a complete state of suspended belief, my mind completely boggled by all the possible reverberations in this post-modernist restructuring of a classicist’s classic. If I weren’t a recovering English Major, I’d be here writing a dissertation on all those connotations, conversations, and revelations Chris Anthony referred to in her letter to us, her audience.
But, no. I’m here, a grateful onlooker, in this renovated church, the Grandel Theatre with its vaulted ceiling and scrollwork. I’m here to be with others of my own kind for an evening–other human beings who have ventured out for entertainment and to learn more of that which we are. And, we are all here, passionately here, in union, in concert with the actors on the stage.
Everything about the production does its work in taking us with them, in taking us there…in taking us to that place where we get to see the human spirit in motion…the human spirit caught in the act of triumph, of suffering, and of the deepest regret.
It’s the physicality of the performances that most catches my heart with the grace, power, comedy, and precision of the choreography of ensemble movement and of how each actor uses body and hands as well as voice and pacing to communicate character and situation.
I’m mesmerized by a whole new sense of Iago, for instance, a magnificent villain. Darryl Alan Reed’s Iago has a lion’s share of stage time and must keep us captivated, magnetized, and on-edge. Maybe we know what will happen next or not.
Maybe we studied Shakepeare, and maybe we didn’t. Doesn’t matter this evening. In the Black Rep’s production, we are experiencing Shakespeare as audiences in Shakespeare’s day did. (Read here for more about attending theater in Shakepeare’s day.)
Shakespeare didn’t write for intellectuals and aristocrats. Shakespeare wrote for the masses and he wrote in multi-layered levels and allusions, as in the production interpreted by Chris Anthony here. You don’t have to be a genius to get Shakespeare. You just have to be a human being. The Black Rep knows that and gives us that.
There are folks in this audience who could quote you Shakespeare footnotes. There are folks in this audience who’ve never read a line. Doesn’t matter. We are all passionately here. The man next to me sighs during a touching love scene. When Iago comes on to do more dirty work, we are all ready to hiss. “The Snake,” the man next to me murmurs. When Iago has cued Lodovico (Robert Lee Davis III) up to kill Cassio (Robert A. Mitchell), the woman next to me says, “He scared. He won’t do it.”
In other words, we’re all deeply involved in the story. This is the Season of Storytellers, and Shakespeare is still the master, no matter where and no matter how we recast the original story. From now on, “Othello” has acquired a new layer in the history of play-making and play-going. It’s a multi-colored layer that adds dimension to the play, to our reading of Shakepeare, and to our own struggles with our own inner tragedies.