Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

Outdoor 'Othello' works effectively


“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

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.


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