Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

Outdoor 'Othello' works effectively

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    “Bare bones” blatantly describes the
    design elements of Shakespeare on the
    Grands “Othello" in its current form. Under
    the auspices of the Lansing Civic Players, the
    offshoot company maximizes its shoestring
    budget with a bi-colored cloth backdrop
    and a simple wooden balcony that serves as
    the set beneath the dinosaur beams at the
    Riverfront Park Salt Shed.


    With borrowed costumes and barely any
    props, “Othello" is not flashy,
    but it is structurally sound,
    from the adequate and sometimes
    interesting acting to the straightforward
    direction.


    The artistic choice to “modernize”
    Shakespeare always prompts questions
    of necessity. Director Rita Diebler places
    “Othello in the present, obfuscating the
    title character’s background into the greater
    African continent. Thankfully not outfitted
    with the traditional blackface makeup
    often used by actors playing
    the role, Mike Stewart
    portrays the Moor as a man
    whose “differentness” and
    intense scrupulousness are
    the source of hatred and the
    tool for manipulation by his
    snake-tongued friend, Iago,
    played by the reliable Tod
    Humphrey. Casting Othello
    as “different” rather than literally “black”
    works for this production, although audiences
    may wonder why the present-day
    Turks are attacking Cyprus and whether
    modernizing isn’t just an excuse to avoid
    wearing tights.



    Stewart physically defines his character
    more than any other actor in the cast,
    from his confident steps to his raised chin
    stances. As a result, Stewart’s Othello is
    always entertaining to watch, even if cynics
    cannot always take him seriously. Part of
    this comes from his delivery, which — given
    the outdoor setting — is understandably
    loud; as each line is delivered as a booming
    pronouncement or an angry shriek, one
    begins to root for Iago for easily tricking
    such a melodramatic fool. Lines like "fire
    and brimstone!" sound as if Stewart is in a
    Will Ferrell comedy.


    That said, Stewart is
    able to portray his love for
    his wife, Desdemona (Amy
    Winchell), with a very honest
    intensity. Their combined
    chemistry may not
    always sizzle, but you do
    believe that it pains him to
    kill her and pains him even
    more to be told that she was
    innocent from the beginning.


    Humphrey, as always, makes every word
    distinct and every line clear and understandable.
    While he switches effectively
    from his public face of false honesty to his
    private sneer full of sinister plotting, he never
    answers the important question of why
    Iago so despises Othello. Although his dialogue
    keeps his real motives vague, even an
    internal response on the part of Humphrey
    to push his motives beyond simple racial
    prejudices could clarify and intensify the
    play’s catalyst.


    The rest of the cast members — including
    Winchell, Steven Ledyard, Adam
    Bright, Mark Polzin, Kris Vitols, Erica Beck,
    Angela Wright, Anthony Romero, Danny
    VanOverbeke and CJ Bernhart — each
    plays his or her respective role effectively
    enough. None of the players or pawns particularly
    stands out, but there are also no
    squeaky wheels.


    Even the most engaging outdoor productions
    must endure the constant distractions
    of the Riverfront Park location, including,
    but not limited to, police sirens, construction
    vehicles and other nearby music performances.
    To their credit, the cast never
    allows these constant irritations to detract
    too much from their performances. While
    very little of this production rises to the
    occasion of being truly memorable, it is by
    far one of the best productions from this
    company in recent memory.


    'Othello'


    Shakespeare on the Grand 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5, through Sunday, Aug. 8 Adado Riverfront Park Salt Shed. Free. www.lansingcivicplayers.org