The current Hudson Valley Shakespeare production of Othello is a tour de force. Infused in this bear of a play is a resurgent energy that feels raw and invigorating as it unveils the intricate kaleidoscope of human nature splintered by malicious intent. Expertly directed by Christopher Edwards, his program notes set the initial tone: “…..we are lied to as many as 200 times a day…….we are a society of deceivers walking a thin line between appearance and reality.” Edwards skillfully catapults us from one scene to the next sustaining the tension throughout.
Written in 1603, Othello is one of Shakespeare’s famous tragedies and the messages of deceit, racism, sexism, jealousy and revenge haven’t lost their sting. Othello is a dark skinned Moor and a powerful military general who falls in love with and weds Desdemona, a white woman. The marriage taps the hatred and envy of Iago, Othello’s close military confidant. It’s Iago’s escalating and furtive dishonesty that is the eventual ruin of Othello. The deep emotional conflict between Othello and Iago is echoed by the backdrop of the battlefield where war is a constant. Edwards consulted with West Point officers directly across the river from the Boscobel stage and realistically assimilated today’s military behavior into the play. Battalion guttural shouts of “Hooah!” and “Yes sir!” come from actors wearing headsets and dressed in camouflaged uniforms while brandishing genuine looking semi-automatic weapons and aggressively drawn pistols as if they stepped right out of CSI.
Kurt Rhoads is brilliant as the lying and treacherous Iago. Rhoads’ pacing is masterful as he deftly draws us in by initially portraying a cautious man who has nothing to hide. As he elicits our skepticism and finally divulges his calculating and evil plan, the irony is blatant: while we recognize how vile Iago is, the characters don’t really see it until the end. Rhoads’ swagger and his Green Beret style cap and sunglasses suggest a crass and dangerous bully oozing from his every pore. By the end of the play Rhoads has us seething at him and his destructive motive of revenge.
Equally adept is the talented Leopold Loew as Othello. Loew superbly crafts Othello’s incremental metamorphoses from a happy, loving man to one who has fallen into a jealous and deranged frenzy. Lowe is sublime as he nears the slippery edge of the black hole of hate. Susannah Millonzi’s Desdemona captivates us with a keen, buoyant innocence, a stark contrast to the social deterioration around her. When her exuberance is stripped away, Millonzi conveys a deep and passionate sense of loss without being overly dramatic. Millonzi and Nance Williamson, who plays Iago’s abused wife, Emilia, create a stunningly magnetic interconnection on stage as they each become transformed in their views of men. Williamson is a faithful and wonderful conduit here for Shakespeare’s words on women’s rights: “Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;…” Jason O’Connell is the frantic and beleaguered Roderigo who loves Desdemona in vain and offers up a truly lost soul enslaved to Iago’s heinous bidding. Stephen Paul Johnson is Brabantio, Desdemonia’s father whose rage at his daughter’s bi-racial marriage is potent.
The famous singer and actor Paul Robeson played Othello when it came to Broadway in the 1940s, a time when this country was still rampantly racist. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Edwards, in creating the drunken party scene in the barracks, has Rhoads singing Ol Man River — the popular Showboat song about oppressed African Americans - a song that was sung by Robeson throughout his performing career. It makes a compelling parody as does the contemporary social relevance of this production.
The HVSF 2014 season also includes Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Eric Tucker and The Liar directed by Russell Treyz, (both previously reviewed in Roll Magazine). All three plays will be presented through August 31.
For 28 seasons the festival has been performed in a beautiful, castle-like open-air theater tent on the grounds of historic Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, using the spectacular view of the Hudson River as a theatrical backdrop.
For more information call the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival office at 845 – 809-5750, or visit hvshakespeare.org
featured image; Leopold Lowe, Susannah Millonzi
All photos by William Marsh
Abby Luby is a writer/journalist based in Westchester County. www.abbylu.com