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Intiman stages powerful Othello

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

Othello
Intiman Theatre
Through August 9


Even before Intiman Theatre opened its current production of Shakespeare's Othello, the show had "hit" written all over it. Positive audience reaction to the lengthy series of preview performances and strong advance ticket sales prompted Intiman to add a week to the show's run. It now continues though August 9, an added eight performances.

The world-famous tragedy arrives at Intiman as a restaging of a hit production from New York where Theatre For A New Audience introduced this stripped down Othello, with different leading actors, last winter. Raves from New York critics, especially The New York Times, and sensational ticket sales resulted in an encore run this spring. When long range planning changes at Intiman put its own planned production of Othello in question, the Tony Award-winning Seattle theater quickly snapped by the Theatre For A New Audience staging and imported the director, most of the cast and the New York production designers. It's a win-win situation that results in one of the most powerful productions of Othello that this scribe has ever seen.

The stark set design - a large platform, a back wall with just two doors, some simple bits of furniture - forces the audience to listen to the language, which is where Shakespeare truly sets the scene. Thus the move from Venice to Cyprus is accomplished only with words - nothing on the bare stage changes. The costumes, too, remain simple. The military uniforms are vaguely period - a period take on the typical cadet uniform (think West Point-inspired tunics with cadet collars in a semi-metallic fabric). Desdemona wears only one dress throughout the play, until the nightgown for her deathbed scene. The changes in her character are the strength of the production, not lavish fabrics or elaborate designs for costume changes. This stripped-down feeling is what makes the production so strong. (The Oregon Shakespeare Festival mounted an elaborate Othello last summer that successfully used detailed staging and lavish costumes, and also succeeded in making the text dominate the production.)

Sean Patrick Thomas, a veteran of the New York Shakespeare Festival, is a strong Othello. He gives the title character, the Moor of Venice, a fully developed character. His anguish at his own jealous over reactions to Iago's treacherous comments, give him the tragic quality that Shakespeare demands. A handsome, muscular African American, he is thoroughly convincing as a military leader fighting the racial prejudice of 1570 Venice.

Elisabeth Waterston's Desdemona is another strength of the production. Tall, willowy, regal, Waterston brings every detail of her character to full, vibrant life. Defying her father to elope and unite in an interracial marriage, she is strong and determined. At the end of the play, hardly recognizing the wrath of her once loving husband, she goes to her marriage bed fully aware that it may be her deathbed.

Only John Campion's Iago is a question mark in this production. Far older than the other cast members (and far older than Shakespeare suggests), Campion's Iago creates a lot of questions with few answers. If he is, indeed, thoroughly trusted by Othello, how did the two men meet and become involved in the military structure together? How did he spend earlier years, and in whose service? Where did his strange accent come from? While none of these questions are serious, they do throw the key relationship between Iago and Othello into question. Nevertheless, Campion creates a memorable Iago, a version that plays up the inherent comedy of some scenes and some relationships. The audience clearly loved the welcome humor, and that may be another strength of this production.

Solid support comes from the whole cast but special mention must go to three key supporting performances: Kate Forbes is wonderfully detailed as Emilia, wife to Iago and maid to Desdemona; Lucas Hall as the vibrant Cassio; and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as Bianca, a full-figured courtesan whose low comedy scenes registered fully with the opening night crowd.

The production was directed by Arvin Arbus, an up-and-coming director and the associate artistic director of New York's Theatre For A New Audience, where this production originated. (Trivia detail - her mother was the famous photographer Diane Arbus.)

Ticket details and reservations are available at (206) 269-1900. In a wise move in these troubled economic times, Intiman prices all adult tickets at every Tuesday production at just $25 (full rate tickets go up to $55 for key performance nights). Rush tickets, when available, are $20, and are sold 15 minutes before curtain. Audience members under 25 can attend for just $10 any night. Group, senior and military discounts are also available - just ask. A post-performance "Conversation With Intiman Staff And Artists" is planned for July 23. The popular "'Round Six Happy Hour," with free drinks and nibbles at 6 p.m., is planned for Friday, July 24. The Saturday evening July 25 performance will be ASL "signed" for deaf and hard of hearing audiences.

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