Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Othello: More Thoughts About the Moor

This past week,  the Varsity Theater in the oh-so-arty town of Ashland, Oregon, played host to the Ashland Independent Film Festival. On Ashland’s main drag, intense-looking film lovers queued up for screenings, or gathered for pints and bites in local cafes. But Ashland is the rare American town where the focus is chiefly on live theatre, performed in repertory.

It all started back in 1935 when a local college professor of drama proposed staging two plays of Shakespeare as part of Ashland’s Independence Day festivities. The city fathers insisted that boxing matches be presented as well. As it turned out, the plays far out-earned the bouts, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was on its way to putting an old timber town on the cultural map. Soon Hollywood too was getting involved. Bing Crosby served as honorary festival director from 1949 to 1951, Charles Laughton volunteered to star in King Lear, and Stacy Keach made several appearances in the early 1960s. 

By 1970, the festival had outgrown the outdoor Shakespearean stage that limited its performances to the summer months. A state-of-the-art indoor proscenium theatre was added in that year, followed by a flexible “black-box” for more experimental stagings. Today, OSF offers eleven plays in a season that stretches from February to November. There are always performances of plays by Shakespeare (including the most obscure of them), but new works are increasingly presented. On Saturday evening, I saw a world premiere of Manhatta, a striking new play that confronts the Native American experience both in the Manhatta of old and in today’s New York City. 

But of course the heart of the OSF lies in its Shakespearean performances. In recent years some have been gimmicky, with more gender-bending than audience members are willing to tolerate. I was lucky to see an Othello that was effectively staged and beautifully played on the indoor Angus Bowmer stage. Yes, there was some toying with contemporary elements. Othello and his men wore modern naval uniforms, communicated at times via cell phone, and played out one long stretch while lifting weights at a health-club. But the play’s tragic jealousy was still front and center, even while our awareness of racism then and now gave this Othello a modern edge. 

I’ve seen Othello on stage before, enacted by James Earl Jones, with Jill Clayburgh as his long-suffering Desdemona. But what really lingers in my mind is a filmed production that came out of England in 1965, starring (would you believe?) Laurence Olivier. In the early 20th century, it was not unusual for white actors to blacken their faces to play this fascinating role. Orson Welles had done it on screen back in 1951. But by the mid-Sixties, Americans were less comfortable with handing a black man’s role (and one of the best black roles ever written) over to a Caucasian. Olivier had played the part on stage, and the modestly-funded film (which also starred Maggie Smith as Othello’s beautiful young wife) was essentially a filmed play, attracting an audience of intellectual types. I remember the great Olivier as being even more astonishing than usual. He’d clearly put a lot of work into transforming himself, beyond the pigment of his skin. His Othello was barrel-chested, and  he spoke in a resonant voice far deeper than Olivier’s usual timbre. Naturally, many took offense, with some critics likening his performance to an Al Jolson “Mammy” routine.  I accept their point, but could never help cheering for the right of a great performer to try on a great role for size, even if it made him (understandably) uncomfortable in his skin.

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