Yawn if you love Othello

A good reason to attend a classic performance, such as Shakespeare’s Othello, is to experience some culture. After all, college students should occasionally expand their weekend festivities beyond drinking Natty Light. Yet, choose wisely – just because a performance has achieved the distinction of “cultured” doesn’t mean it can’t also put you to sleep.

The Shakespeare Theatre boasts that this is a tale of love, betrayal and murder – not unlike every other Shakespeare play, eh?

Othello, which is currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre, centers on the interracial love between Othello (Avery Brooks), a Moor, and Desdemona (Colleen Delany). Othello and Desdemona develop, against the will of her father, Brabantio (David Sabin), destroying the courtship plans of Roderigo (Erik Steele), who hires Iago (Patrick Page) to help him win over the beautiful Desdemona.

Iago wishes to destroy the marriage, so he employs the help of his wife, Emilia (Lise Bruneau), to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief and plant it in the room of one of Othello’s lieutenants, Cassio (Gregory Wooddell), to seem like evidence of Desdemona’s infidelity.

Othello becomes extremely upset by his wife’s apparent affair. In response, he kills Desdemona, then slays himself when he finds out the truth – that she was innocent. If that confuses you, try this: Two people fall in love. Somebody gets jealous. The “Bad Guy” makes devious plans. Everyone dies. It’s quite thrilling, actually. Oh, and there’s a smidge of sword fighting – with torches, too.

Though the story itself is strong, the performance at the Shakespeare Theatre was a bit lacking. Most college kids don’t jump at the chance to see a Shakespearean play, and this version of Othello explains why this is so. Looking at the actors on stage, one is enthralled by the diverse physicality. The petite Desdemona foils Othello’s bulk, not to mention their voices are at opposite ends of the spectrum. After hearing the booming voice of Othello, the audience falls in love with the sweet, almost melodic speech of the Moor’s wife.

However, when the story gets started, the audience is lost by the force which some of the actors seem to be exhibiting due to Shakespeare’s style of writing. Unfortunately, most of Othello’s lines are barely audible due to Brooks’ tendency to rush right through them. At times, one feels as if he is merely blurting out his lines to get on to the exciting parts – like fighting, or his seizure, which was also poorly presented. To make things even more “interesting,” Desdemona’s father, Brabantio (Sabin), randomly and unnecessarily shouts his lines, causing the audience to hold in laughter – not unlike the feeling of finding something excruciatingly funny while at a church service.

An exception to the forced acting is Patrick Page’s performance as Iago. Each line of Page’s is immediately understood by the audience; he makes it seem as if speaking in iambic pentameter has not gone out of style.

Though the actors added little to the production, the set designers succeeded. Filling the stage perfectly, the set consisted of wooded walls, which shifted and opened at various places to create different spaces for the play. Sliding silently with each scene, the grand flats housed Othello beautifully. The lighting included well-placed spots, which helped concentrate the audience’s attention when characters, like Iago, shared asides about their clandestine plans.

Finishing up like any good work of Shakespeare, most of the main characters die, which does add a bit of excitement to the otherwise dull performance. The curtain call seemed to sum up the night: each actor thanked the audience by standing with straight faces, some even with frowns, as they bowed. And just to make sure no one forgot his immaculate performance, Othello yawned as he walked off the stage, prompting me to turn to my friend, who had the same look on his face as I did: Did you just see that? Wow, I thought we were in a professional theater.

I am not a Shakespeare enthusiast. His plot lines are incredible, but it is often difficult for me to sit through a performance, and Othello was no exception.

Othello runs through Oct. 30 at the Shakespeare Theatre. Call (202) 547-1122 for tickets. Yawn not guaranteed at every performance.

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