by Michelle Michael
– The Capitol Hill Times –
From a scarcely-filled theater that holds 45 seats, the opening crack and fizz of a soda can lid draws attention up to the lighting designer’s booth, where the spray travels across the lamplight of her station. Her readiness is as much a curtain call as any to the start of Shakespeare’s play, “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.” Eclectic Theater’s wingless stage is already crowded with actors, creeping out, yawning and stretching before the first cue.
“All you need is the will to perform and the language,” the play’s title character, Michael D. Blum, said.
That may be true for career actors like Blum and Othello’s Duke and Clown, Jeff Allen Pierce, but the play directed by Kim Deskin exemplifies a production’s need for much more than a couple of brilliant actors and the language of Shakespeare.
For one, each cast member should have memorized their lines, but Deskin maintained “I’m about the stories of Shakespeare getting into the eyes and minds of today’s contemporary audience. I don’t really care if an actor needs a book.” Husband to the Director and antagonist, Iago, Rik Deskin read from his script three weeks into the show’s run.
The set design is insufficient in delineating one scene from another. “I’m very non-traditional in my approach to Shakespeare. I work from theme, not period,” Deskin said. Though the black-and-white color scheme suggests symbolism and modernity, the costumes disorient the viewer through several eras, and fall short of meaningful contrast.
The last missing element was cohesion, which is integral to any story. The once minor role of an insidious clown who set chaos into motion is reinvented as a “chorus of clowns.” Principal clown, played by Pierce explained the insertion of the chorus as “manipulators,” and “catalysts for action among the main characters.”
The visual display of major themes by the clowns who used billboards to literally spell out words in jest or irony is creative, but to simply insert a theme into a story does not work without reworking the entire play, and so supporting characters were left to distract from the action by wandering around the perimeter of the stage. The “new and improved” take to the 410-year-old play is misguided, however ambitious.
Still, the story of Othello is relatable. Blum said that Othello is a “good man who is misled into believing that he has been betrayed, and that betrayal is shattering.”
Othello’s cohort, Iago, and Lieutenant Cassio push Othello, the scorned newlywed, into violence, and, finally overcome with jealously, destroy his relationship and a few important lives.
So, why see the production despite its shortfalls? Here are three reasons:
1. You’re a patron of the arts. Great theater is not born overnight. Audiences can pay their dues, too. Volunteer productions need more support than well-funded shows. While Othello cost only $750, the show may still not break-even. Supportive criticism is an active form of appreciation.
2. You’re a theater snob. The smallest of details can make or break continuity, and the actors’ timbre. See this rendition of Othello to refresh your palate. You’ll learn more about theater logistics and technical construction. You’ll bring this awareness to every play that you see after it, and your appreciation will gain a quantitative element. Better yet, you’ll raise your cocktail banter up a notch.
3. You’ll see some great performances. You’ll get to zero-in on stand-out character actors, like Pierce. Blum’s crystal clear voice and cadence is impeccable, and he inhabits Othello with ease and authority. Here is Shakespeare’s 27th play, which set the stage in 1660 for the first female actress to play a female role in an otherwise all-male industry. The famous role is characterized by a foreigner, and its casting is often led by an actor of ethnic diversity.
The joint Actors’ Equity Association members and Eclectic Theater project is a reflection of the Actors’ Union Code, recently revised to allow members to put on projects to “showcase their talents.” Casting directors will appreciate the recital of new-to-Seattle Blum and Pierce, and steady, first-time performance of Clown Chorus 3, Alexa Oo.
Volunteer productions like this one are springing up everywhere against the industry’s shrinking budgets. Our growing actor population is facing the reality of fewer opportunities for talent and crew by creating their own. The joint venture of eager Equity actors without Equity productions, directors and crews without opportunity, and newcomers without the space to grow, are convincing in their commitment to the work.
That being said, not everyone should be exalted. Sometimes the direction is simply coordinated poorly. Perhaps, sometimes the show shouldn’t go on. Yet, to engage in theater arts, is to go often, and inform your opinion with variety.