Theatre review: Othello at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre

Photo by Michael Hardy Photography
Alexander Harris (Othello) and Carly Taylor (Desdemona) in Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre’s Othello

William Shakespeare’s Othello updates well, especially in the capable hands of director Aurora J. Culver. At the Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre through Sept. 28, this early-1960s military-themed production brings to life the play’s racist, jealousy-fueled plot in a viscerally moving way.

Taking place in Italy under a military regime– reflected well by the austere high-walled set (Naomi Kasahara)– the story begins in Venice but soon moves to Cyprus, after Othello (Alexander Harris) has been put in charge of an army unit by the commanding Duke (Lorraine Winslow).

Jealous of Othello’s promotion, fellow soldier Iago (Don Kindle) secretly orchestrates an elaborate revenge plot, manipulating everyone around him to bring down Othello. As the cold mastermind, Kindle anchors the production with his performance, conveying his character’s intelligence and hatred in an uncaricatured way. We recognize Iago as a person, which makes the extent of his scheming shocking and hard to fathom.

Iago’s first pawn is Roderigo (Amara Phelps), in love with Othello’s wife Desdemona (Carly Taylor) and convinced to reveal to Desdemona’s father (an emotive David Clark Hutchison) that his daughter has wed a Moor, which was perhaps as racially inappropriate in the early 1960s as in Shakespeare’s time.

Iago goes on to sow in Othello’s mind seeds of suspicion about Desdemona’s unfaithfulness with another soldier, Cassio (Christian Jordan Skinner), using his own wife Emilia (Hillary Weintraub)– a loyal maidservant to Desdemona– to supply a charged piece of personal evidence. It is Emilia who must ultimately choose between duty and truth.

The acting is uniformly excellent and complemented well by original music (Andrew Wilcox) and very physical fight choreography (Matt Franta). Moreover, Desdemona’s tailored 1960s-style ensembles, reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy but with more flair and beautifully textured fabrics (Christina Bayer), highlight her graceful character as a gem being tarnished by Iago’s lies, not just in terms of reputation but through rough physical violence.

That we feel for nearly every character is a testament to Culver’s direction. Her choice of setting grounds the play, giving it a concrete structure that makes modern sense. Dialogue flows at a human pace, making the action believable. Though the play is slightly long as a result, it never drags during its two-and-a-half hours. In fact, its culminating scene is highly cathartic because the audience becomes so immersed.

Ultimately, we feel equally the burning intensity of Iago’s scheming, Othello’s emotional and moral confusion and the pain of Desdemona’s innocent suffering.

As Culver notes, “This 400-year-old play speaks truthfully to the darkness within humanity.” She invites us not to stand by against wrongs or be pushed into hating. That’s certainly a relevant message for today, fervently delivered by this outstanding cast.

Othello continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Sept. 28, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14-$24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or click here.

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