Moor Is Less

Karamu's Othello reduces Shakespeare's masterpiece to mish-mash

Othello, the Moor of Venice Arena Theatre, Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street. 216-795-7070 Through June 18
Othello, looking for his mojo.
Othello, looking for his mojo.
In 1934 Cole Porter penned his vision of Armageddon, when he had Ethel Merman's nightclub evangelist Reno Sweeney belt out, "The world has gone mad today, and good's bad today, and black's white today -- anything goes!" While watching Karamu's insidious attack on Shakespeare's Othello, these lyrics ring in our skull as a prophecy.

In the ensuing centuries since the partnership of Richard Burbage and Master Will set London -- then the rest of western civilization -- on its ear, these two have left dramatic literature its most valuable artifacts. Shakespeare's plays have held up to all but the most egotistical battering rams. A recent Richard III had the Plantagenet king as a monocle-wearing Mussolini fascist, smoking Chesterfields through a cigarette holder. In our very own farmyard, Red Hen Productions cast Shylock as a rather grumpy lesbian in an oddly fascinating Merchant of Venice. These productions had shrewd directors who instilled in them a logic and vision that made them fascinating meditations on their source.

On the other side of the spectrum, Karamu House is infected with a bizarre form of rummage-sale chaos. Actors who look like deer startled by headlights prance about in anything from moldering approximations of Renaissance robes to cheesecloth tunics that look as if they were designed by Harry's Big and Tall.

Director James Workman's "do-your-own-thing" approach has the same toxic effect on this 400-year-old chronicle of the noble Moor as Kryptonite on Superman.

The use of black performers to play Desdemona and her father nullifies one of the play's two main themes: that of the Moor's alienation in a strange land. The director has shown a startling lack of imagination in working out the problem he created by his casting. He could have plundered from the Greeks or Asians for stylization -- for example, using blond wigs or donning masks or whiteface to suggest racial differences.

Instead, he constructs a ponderous smokescreen for his bad judgment by stating in the program that "Othello is not primarily about interracial love, or white on black racism."

As Workman's hyperkinetic performers sputter and pop like a bag of popcorn in the microwave, they seem to apply their concentration to not impaling each other with their toy swords. The production is wildly inconsistent, lacking the fundamentals of style and stage movement. For its small space, it's too loud and raucous.

Here is an evening forged in a disastrous form of democracy. Potentially proficient actors are given enough rope to hang themselves by being allowed to determine their own performance styles.

Prester Pickett enacts Othello in an August Wilson bluesy style. He seems itching to trade in his tunic for a zoot suit. There's not a trace of wronged nobility in the air. In the great jealousy scene that ends the first act, as he sinks to his knees, he appears to have just rolled snake eyes.

Donald A. Squires gives us an Iago who might have majored in villainy under Harpo Marx. If crossed eyes, exasperation expressed through puffed cheeks, and sneers resembling aborted sneezes were declared hazardous to health, he would indeed be a dangerous nemesis.

Ebani Edwards, a gentle Desdemona, signals good intentions like a tiny craft lost in a monsoon.

Owen Graham and Judy MacKeigan, as the unfortunate Rodrigo and Emilia, overdo the annoying aspects of the country bumpkin and pallid, self-pitying martyr.

In the embarrassingly tiny parts of the harlot Bianca and her bold braggart Cassio, Nicole Sterns and Ed Walsh are the only sparks capable of inspiring warmth and desire among the damp kindling.

If enacting Shakespeare has become theater's cultural religion, a production such as this one -- lacking logic, grace, and freshness -- is only an unanswered prayer.

Not to despair, however. There are certain theaters in the city that bring to mind those tiny fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream who daintily spread unexpected dollops of joy over the populace. Red Hen Productions, with its transgender Shakespeare and canny sex parodies, is beginning to fill that bill.

Loganberry Books, an oasis built of Persian rugs and bibliophile esoterica, brings to mind Ali Baba's cave. That's where contented, tear-stained audiences last weekend watched their mundane cares evaporate as they got whisked off on a 45-minute cathartic magic carpet ride. The Last Nickel, a staged reading of a one-act play by Jane Shepherd, is a delicate fantasy about two sisters hovering between earth and eternity. Part Twilight Zone and part Peter Pan, this is a work of tenderness and wonder. Jan Bruml directs an enchanting cast with the delicacy of a Fabergé jeweler. You have three more days to experience a minor cult classic in the making.

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