Thursday, June 6, 2019

Theatre Review: Othello(s) at The Shakespeare Forum

Othello(s) Abound

© The Shakespeare Forum
More Moors Than The Bard Ever Had Before
by Stephen Mosher

When a playwright has been dead for 401 years it is easy to interpret their works any way you like. They’re dead, they don’t care. That’s why there was a Romeo and Juliet in which Texas cowboys and Mexicans were bitter rivals, a Midsummer Night’s Dream that was a disco fantasy, an all-female Taming of the Shrew and an immersive Macbeth meets Alfred Hitchcock. These are only some of the examples of the madcap types of Shakespearean adventures to which I have been treated over the years. When it comes to producing the Bard, all bets are off. Perhaps it is because producers are terrified if they don’t do something different with their version of these famous tales audiences will fail to come. Could be it is because directors are bored with doublets and codpieces. Or maybe these creators of theatrical storytelling are on a quest, trying to find something that is new, something that is their own.

New York City’s The Shakespeare Forum has certainly found something that is their own.To be exact, they have made something that is their own. Created in 2009, The Shakespeare Forum started as a bunch of actors gathering one night a week to perform for one another, critique each other and support all who passed through their doors. After a few years of doing these weekly Open Workshops, the growing organization decided to try their hand at producing plays and in 2012 they presented a traditional and stellar Hamlet. For the next three years their productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labors Lost and The Merchant of Venice remained traditionally theatrical: linear storytelling on attractive sets with alluring costuming. All quality productions, these plays showcased the talents of many theatre artisans, not the least of which was the actors standing front and center, and audience reaction was positively positive.

And then one day the creators of The Shakespeare Forum, artistic director Tyler Moss and Executive director Sybille Bruun-Moss, asked themselves an honest and probing question: what is our purpose? Their answer was a noble one - education; and with that they moved their base of operations to the El Barrio Artspace PS109 in East Harlem and began creating empowered communities through education and performance. With a coterie of expert teachers they focused on teaching people of all ages, demographics and lifestyles with great success, building a community where art and education thrives. And though their focus changed it did not stop them from creating theatre - it only changed the way they create that theatre. With carefully chosen casts for each play that they do, the artists at The Shakespeare Forum spend weeks studying plays like Henry V, Titus Andronicus and King Lear, they take them apart, see what they learn and put them back together in a way that is unique to their mission and true to their vision. They strip everything from the play bare and send actors out onto a stage in a brick walled basement space, sans sets, minimum costumes and few props with one commission: tell the story, at all costs, which is what they do, bare-boned, exposed, raw. Sometimes it works - their Henry V is the greatest Shakespeare production I have ever seen. Sometimes it does not - I was so confused by their Titus Andronicus that I stopped following the story and just listened to the music, which was enough. Whatever the outcome of their efforts, the community is growing, the students are learning and the organization is thriving.

Their current three week long Shakespeare Festival features classes, workshops, productions by fellow theatre companies and their own deconstructed look at the play Othello, titled Othello(s). I had the chance to see their play, and I have to be honest: I was irritated when I learned that the run time on the show was 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission. I don’t sit well for more than two hours, something I am never shy about mentioning, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare. Now, having said that I have to say something else with absolute honesty: when the play ended I immediately began checking my Google calendar to see if there was another performance I might be able to see again. I can be prone to superlative rhetoric but I am not kidding when I say this, from the deepest place of my heart:

Othello(s) is the most artistic Shakespeare play production I have ever seen in my life.

I’m not talking about opera, ballet or immersive event theatre based on Shakespeare, I am referring to productions of plays using The Bard’s written word. Never have I sat in a theatre and had a Shakespeare play communicated to me with such clarity. I am not a Shakespeare aficionado so it is often possible that I will not be able to follow the play, if I haven’t taken the time to read it, but thanks to program note bullet points from director Sybille Bruun-Moss and incredibly accessible performances by the team of 11 actors, there was not a moment when I wasn’t with them (this is the third time I’ve seen the play Othello and, still, there was a chance I wouldn’t get it). It’s more than just their acting and some Cliff’s Notes on page 2 of a program, though -- I was with them because I was invested. I was interested, indeed, they had my rapt attention. My mind didn’t wander, I didn’t roll my eyes, I didn’t even doze off once, a true sign of my commitment to a play I am seeing, in short, a miracle.

What grabbed me about Othello(s) is Bruun-Moss’s concept. The play is broken down into four parts and Shakespeare’s scenes, dialogue and soliloquy’s have been taken apart and put back together to fit into each of those four parts, and to perfection. Part One is titled 'Roderigo', Part Two is named 'Desdemona', Part Three is called 'Iago/Emilia' and Part Four is 'Othello'. Each of these chapters shows the events pertaining to their titular character during the same period of time, and the audience must use their mind to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube in Iambic Pentameter. It is insanely artistic and mercilessly demanding - the audience must either keep up or get lost, and it’s wildly refreshing to not be pandered to.

© The Shakespeare Forum
The actors all appear in various costumes of denim and white cotton with no time period, there is no set at all, save for a stool here, some muslin hanging there, and the props are limited to a handkerchief, a bowl, some flowers and a fan. While in the confines of each chapter of the play, the main roles were played by the same actors but when the 'Roderigo' chapter became the 'Desdemona' chapter, Iago was being played by a new actor, as were all the other roles. This changeover happened every time a scene had a new appellation, and it didn’t throw me or any of the other audience members whose faces I could see. They were as attentive as I was. It was a sight to behold. Without the benefit of costume pieces, without any assistance at all, except the skill of the actors and the focus of our minds, we knew exactly who was who, all night long, with men and women being played by men or women. I was wide eyed and slack jawed with amazement, a fact noted and remarked on by other members of the audience, once the play was over.

Ms. Brunn-Moss makes sure the audience knows that this is a play from the moment they enter, with artists strolling among the house, or playing percussive instruments which play throughout the night - in fact music should be considered one of the characters in the play. We know this is theatre, that it is going to be a heightened sense of reality, which makes the quieter moments in the play more real than life itself. She has expertly crafted her cast into an ensemble, and through staging and choreography we see that ensemble work like cogs moving the story forward, then backward, then forward, then backward, and then again, and once more. It is spellbinding to watch that clock rewind to show the parallel storylines happening in a timeline of tragedy and deception. This is masterful direction from the tiniest little whispers around the room, spreading dangerous gossip about the Moor’s wife, to the intricate lighting that sets the tone for each moment. Sybille Bruun-Moss has really hit on something with this play, something that needs a life beyond El Barrio’s Shakespeare Festival 2019.

It is difficult to separate members of an ensemble who works so very well together, and it has to be said that there is not a weak actor in this cast (a rarity in my experience) - all are splendid. Particular standouts for me were Ari Dalbert who, in the 'Roderigo' chapter, displays such command of the language that anyone watching who didn’t know their Shakespeare might think he was just having a conversation with them; Kia Nicole Boyer who, in the 'Desdemona' chapter, was the cause of many a heartbreak sniffle from the audience; Tyler Moss, who seems to be able to simply walk onto a stage, eloquently crack open his heart and spill forth emotion, Iambic or otherwise, to a captive audience, and Sara Malinowski, who appears to be so comfortable onstage that it seemed, often, as though I were sitting in her living room listening to her tell me a story. I wish that I could wrap up this entire cast and keep them and this experience with me always.

The biggest mic drop to me, though, was Alice Kabia, who went completely against the grain when it came to playing Iago. For years I have seen moustache twisters bring their best Perils of Pauline villain to the scoundrel of Othello, this character called Honest Iago, who (spoiler alert) destroys everything. In Alice Kabia’s hands we have a totally believable Honest Iago, which is what we need in order to buy that Othello believes what his nemesis says. No upraised eyebrow and ghoulish laugh here, for Iago was sincere and genuine and deeply worried for his friend, which is why his plan worked. Only we, the onlookers, knew what was in his heart because of what we had been shown in previous scenes. It was a mass of understatement for Mx. Kabia, one for which I have been longing, lo, these many years.

I wish that someone would catch Othello(s) and offer to pick it up and put it into a theatre downtown for an extended run because it should be seen, and by many. It is the kind of art that I imagine was happening in New York when I read about the historic theatrical experiences created in lower east side basements in the late 60s and early 70s. This Othello stands alone and even if the only times it is seen are these remaining performances at El Barrio, it’s enough, because the people who see it will be talking about it for a long time to come.

The company: Amara James Aja, Kia Nicole Boyer, Ari Dalbert, Antonio Disla, Alice Kabia, Brian Linden, Sara Malinowski, Francis Mateo, Tyler Moss, Miguel Angel Rivera Reyes, Devon A. Sanders.

Director: Sybill Bruun-Moss. Asst. Director: Maxon Davis. Stage Manager: Kellie Taylor. Asst. Stage Manager: Elissa Levitt. Designer: Nicoline Traunter. Technical Director: Brian Busch.

Othello(s) performs at The Shakespeare Forum, 215 E 99th Street, Manhattan, June 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 15 at 7:30 pm with a matinee on June 15 at 2 pm. For tickets and more information visit The Shakespeare Forum website.

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