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Othello

With a gripping turn by Andrew Bosworth, this City Theatre production of Shakespeare's tragedy belongs to Iago

Reviewed by Jillian Owens, Fri., March 8, 2013

I'll pour this pestilence into his ear: Iago (Andrew Bosworth) works on Othello (Trevor Bissell)
"I'll pour this pestilence into his ear": Iago (Andrew Bosworth) works on Othello (Trevor Bissell)

Othello

City Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 524-2870
www.citytheatreaustin.org
Through March 17
Running time: 2 hr., 45 min.

I've heard Othello labeled one of three risky Shakespeare plays that, if performed badly, will earn a lot of awkward collar pulling. Just as productions of The Merchant of Venice can appear anti-Semitic or The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic, Othello can seem racist. Fortunately, the City Theatre Company's hearty production is far from uncomfortable. Without cutting any of Shakespeare's harsh language about Othello's skin, director Jeff Hinkle lets the issue of race lap mildly around the edges of the play. Once Brabantio has been put to bed in Act I, blackness seems to become merely a convenient metaphor used to contrast Desdemona's purity with Othello's disastrous jealousy. Hinkle draws our attention instead to the seething Iago, whose intricate plot straddles the heart of this Othello.

From the moment he saunters onstage with Roderigo (the excellent, clownish Mario Silva), Andrew Bosworth seizes the audience's gaze and holds on tight. He is nothing short of terrific as Iago. Now, that's not to say that the other leads – Laura Kathleen Artesi as Desdemona, Lindsay McKenna as Emilia, Clay Avery as Cassio, and Trevor Bissell as Othello – aren't also terrific, because all four give strong performances, particularly Bissell. His transformation from a modest, sensitive general to an extremely violent would-be cuckold is masterly. But Bosworth, who is new to town, steals the show. He exudes a magnetic, sociopathic sprightliness as he pinpoints the others' weaknesses and deftly kicks them in the back of the knees. I felt like Iago's confidante throughout, and by that final tragic scene was horrified to almost find myself on his side.

Though the second half lags compared to the muscular first (perhaps because Iago becomes less prominent toward the end), Shakespeare's text is impressively prominent throughout. The leads, no doubt with Hinkle's guidance, prove verse masters, and the cast accomplishes what is obvious, but sometimes elusive: They tell the story well. The solid production design contributes to the production's success. Andy Berkovsky and Jennifer Cunningham's minimalist set – weblike partitions painted in a beautiful wash of Mediterranean turquoise and gold – provide a regal atmosphere. McKenna, who plays a maternal and deeply unhappy Emilia, has designed rich, sweeping costumes that are tailored perfectly to each actor and character. The only weak spot is the lighting design, which could be used more effectively to convey a sense of place and which at times is distractingly uneven. Dimming for Iago's soliloquies felt a bit overdramatic, but it, along with the set's visual metaphor of ensnaring lies, and Bosworth's triumphant performance, cemented in my mind that this Othello is Iago's play.

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