Majestic at the midpoint
Taking stock of the Utah Shakespearean Festival
Thu, Aug 7, 2008 (midnight)
For this production, director J.R. Sullivan has said that he wanted to make the audience complicit in Iago’s villainy.Unfortunately, James Newcomb’s portrayal of Iago leans less on the malice in the part, the sheer drive to evil in the character, and more toward a wheedling, two-faced dishonesty. Physically this means a lot of broken lines in the body—Iago never exactly stands upright, or holds himself forward. He hunches, and shifts, and scratches and rubs his head. For a great deal of the scenes between Iago and Othello (Jonathan Earl Peck), they never stand face to face and actually talk—Iago is literally speaking behind his back. I can see dramaturgical reasons for this, but it seems to sap some intensity from these tortured scenes, leaving the two actors in the same space, but not in the same scene.
This is not an inconsiderable hurdle for me, but it’s also not the ruin of the play. Peck’s performance as a man quickly misshapen by jealousy is good, and Desdemona’s (Lindsey Wochley) gradual move from adoration of the Moor to bewilderment and fear is affecting. But most of the emotional punch of the play’s final scenes comes from the astounding performance of Corliss Preston as Emilia, wife to Iago and maid to Desdemona. Her electric final struggles to save Desdemona’s life and accuse her husband crackle with grief, anger and defiance. She’s astonishing.
The bottom line: ***1/2
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
One of Shakespeare’s lesser-played comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs like a combination between The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet. Proteus (Matt Burke) stays at home after school to woo his love. Valentine (Justin Matthew Gordon) travels and falls in love. Proteus’ father kicks him out of the house to travel, too, whereupon Proteus falls in love with Valentine’s girlfriend, Sylvia (Carly Germany), and sets about winning her for himself. There are balcony wooing scenes, forest banditry and the only scenes in Shakespeare’s canon when he puts a dog onstage.
As with any of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies, this play requires a large dollop of suspension of disbelief, further pushed by the fact that in order for the ending to be emotionally satisfying you have to know the mythology of Proteus, and simply accept certain character traits as given.
The delights of this show come from watching highly trained actors ply their trade with skill and verve. The opening scenes between Julia (Proteus’ girlfriend, played by Lindsey Wochley—yep, Desdemona in Othello) and her maid Lucetta (Marcella Rose Sciotto) are vibrant, fun and physical, and highlight how thought applied to the words and creativity in action can carry a play to the next level. All the performances in this play do that, marrying the lines to specific clever action and moments. Brian Vaughn has the dubious luck of trying to share the stage with a scene-stealing dog (Jake, as Scab) and succeeds marvelously, and Gordon’s sudden elevation of Valentine to king of the forest outlaws is ridiculous fun.
The bottom line: ****
Taming of the Shrew
For many reasons, The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s thornier comedies. For purists, what to do with the framing sequence poses a problem—for modern audiences, the not-so-subtextual miso-gyny, including the final admonitions that women place their hands “below your husband’s foot” and learn their place, causes discomfort. Declaring no quarter on either camp, director Jane Page cuts this play to the bone and then pushes it to its limit.
First, in a move guaranteed to horrify purists (but which, let’s face it, is not all that revolutionary), Page cut the framing device and placed the show in a nontraditional time period, post-WWII Italy. Then she cut the play drastically in order to shorten its running time and rearranged some scenes. This has the effect of pushing Petruchio’s (Grant Goodman) feigned madness to its utmost. His upending of social norms at his and Kate’s (Melinda Parrett) wedding and subsequent torment of her are maddening. This is a Petruchio that is pushed further than I’ve ever seen before.
Kate’s final speech is still a doozy, and it isn’t shirked from, either. Kate really does offer obeisance. Unequivocally. It’s shocking. And that’s genius—the ability to take a centuries-old play that flaunts modern gender conventions, keep the shock, but make it hysterical and sweet, and offer a very real possibility that it’s not completely misogynistic, is rare. From the directing to the acting to the phenomenal set and creative staging, this is a powerhouse of a production.
The bottom line: ****1/2