A wrinkle in the bedsheets

Paula Vogel's "Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief" at Post5 turns the feminist tables on "Othello"

There are at least two reactions to Desdemona: She’s an annoying servant to her husband Othello, who keeps her waiting for days near their marriage bed, with little service to herself and person; or she’s the chrysalis of love’s dedication at all costs to the man she loves. Somewhere in the middle is the real wife of Othello, and with its new production of Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief, Post5 Theatre follows its recent staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy with Paula Vogel’s exploration of Desdemona’s character.

Vogel’s 1987 psychoanalytical voyage was ahead of its time. The America of the 1980s suffered a feminist backlash from which we are still recovering. We still hide under our bedsheets; state by state we step one foot forward and one step back in the political gender arena. Some of us can marry whom we wish. Others can’t use a public bathroom. The uncomfortable distinction of rights versus character continues on its unreasonable path. Vogel’s women’s-perspective version of the play, directed for Post5 by Mary McDonald-Lewis, puts sex-positive inquiry into the most extreme corners, with an acute understanding of Desdemona and the scholarship that unpacks her handkerchief. Out of the adversity and sacrifice of this late-twentieth-century feminism we have emerged with an understanding that there is no black and white. Each of us is who we are, by our own terms; and one day, we hope, that will be the golden rule.

"Desdemona": repression and release. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

“Desdemona”: repression and release. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Shakespeare’s Desdemona moves back and forth with “yes, my lord and yes my lord.” Vogel’s Desdemona is a dread of boredom who seeks out any stimulus and promise. Minutes, hours, days, weeks go by just waiting. The two Desdemonas meet on even ground because they do not understand the power of sex, within themselves or in relation to others. It is this physical disassociation that undoes the world strand by strand, minute by minute. Vogel isn’t gimmicky. It’s all in the image and metaphor. Desdemona in Shakespeare is a mirror to the Moor. In Vogel she’s a mirror on Othello and herself. Vogel is also looking deep into the virgin/whore complex, and declaring that it’s not enough to master what are seemingly two different attitudes; one must also take out the gloves and dig deeper into an authentic identification. There is a freedom in exploring, but being listless in a time of confirmation gives a bare-boned result: where Iago’s deception kills Desdemona off in Othello, in Vogel’s play it is her own confusion that turns a marriage bed into a deathbed.


Post5’s ‘Othello’: less is more

A stark and delicate dance of power gets stripped down to its basics in Post5's "Shakesqueer" telling of the tale

Any relationship involves a delicate dance of power. We negotiate and bargain the trivial to keep the little sparks alive. In love, we try to set aside little irritations for the sake of the oneness. If we’re in for the long haul, most of the everyday is both beautiful and eclipsed by our understanding of whom we care for.

And in this dance, Post5 has stripped bare Shakespeare’s Othello and rearranged the steps.

In director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger’s production the Other is not the Moor, as in the traditional interpretation of Othello. Rather, the have-nots are the Other: the inexplicable Iago, whose passions begin and end in fury; Cassio, who fights for love and liege; and in the end, the motives that lie behind Othello and Desdemona’s desire for each other is the real alienation.

Tell and Tidd: passion and betrayal. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Tell and Tidd: passion and betrayal. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Post5 has done some Shakesqueering: most of the roles are played by women, the one exception being Rodrigo, acted by Sean Doran, who shifts the weight of his walking leg while the other clumps in a cast. He has no affection for Desdemona, and the implied ulterior motives to help Iago: he is half a man, his impotence in stark contrast to the band of Amazons who make the stage.


News & Notes: Last Chance Café

Four shows to set at your table before they close on Sunday

All good things must come to an end, and sometimes they do it before we have a chance to see them. This is the final weekend for four things in Portland that might get you out of the house and into a seat at the cultural banquet before their final day tomorrow, Sunday, May 11.

Mendelson and Alper in "The Quality of Life." Photo: Owen Carey

Mendelson and Alper in “The Quality of Life.” Photo: Owen Carey

The Quality of Life. Artists Rep’s beautiful, deep, and nuanced production of Jane Anderson’s four-hand drama has three more performances, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. By turns funny, contemplative and sorrowful, it explores the relationship between two mature couples and their four conflicting attitudes toward impending or recent death. It’s a quiet stunner, with superb direction by Allen Nause, an imaginative set by Tim Stapleton, and top-of-the-line performances by Linda Alper, Michael Mendelson, Susannah Mars, and Michael Fisher-Welsh. Look here for Marty Hughley’s excellent ArtsWatch review. Ticket information here.

A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. Subtitled Spiritual Implications of the Financial Collapse, Alicia Jo Rabins’ musical theater piece opened for a brief run in February but was smacked, like so many shows, by the snowstorm that kept people mostly indoors. It came back Thursday for a brief run at PSU’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theatre, and has final performances of this run at  7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Producer Boom Arts says Rabins “views Bernie Madoff and the system which allowed him to function through the lens of ancient Jewish and Buddhist texts on financial ethics, ecology, and cycles.” ArtsWatch’s A.L. Adams caught the show this time around and will file her report. Win Goodbody of Portland Theatre Scene saw it in February and raves, calling it “a season highlight.” Ticket information here.

Othello. Portland Center Stage’s production of Shakespeare’s provocative tragedy has drawn mixed response from audiences, but it’s a stately-looking show that lays out the play’s themes and relationships cleanly, blending humor and drama. Read Marty Hughley’s nuanced review for ArtsWatch here. Final performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ticket information here.

Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music. The Portland Art Museum’s big exhibition featuring the likes of Canaletto, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, and Strozzi, along with some gorgeous period musical instruments and musical scores, successfully suggests the form and nature of cultural life over three centuries when Venetian influence was at its height. I reviewed the show for ArtsWatch after it opened in February. Today and tomorrow are its final days; the museum’s open until 5 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Bernardo Strozzi, “Street Musicians,” 1634-37, oil on canvas, 43.3 x 61.6 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library

Bernardo Strozzi, “Street Musicians,” 1634-37, oil on canvas, 43.3 x 61.6 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library



‘Othello’: as the world turns

At Portland Center Stage, the action turns, slowly, on Iago's dime. But does it give no quarter?

During his years at the helm of Portland Center Stage, artistic director Chris Coleman has shown a keen instinct for the striking stage image, and he crafts a couple yet again at the start of his production of Othello, which opened last weekend on the Gerding Theater main stage.

As two characters, Iago and Roderigo, enter at the beginning of the play, a flickering torch held aloft contrasts the darkness and the glowering castle walls of Scott Fyfe’s imposing scenic design. But what their brief dialogue illuminates most is the essential character of Iago, who tells Roderigo forthrightly, “I am not what I am.” Flagbearer to Othello, he is bitter that the general has passed him over for a promotion, and he hints at plans for revenge: “I follow him to serve my turn upon him.”

Gavin Hoffman's Iago, turning events to his own purposes. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Gavin Hoffman’s Iago, turning events to his own purposes. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Turning provides the show’s next visually arresting moment, as that great gray-brown faux-stone edifice behind them begins to rotate, showing interior instead of exterior, and also one of its chief themes. The duplicitous Iago turns to the audience with one face, in openly villainous soliloquies and asides, and to the play’s other characters in another, as the much admired “honest Iago.” His schemes, in turn, turn Othello, curdling his innocent virtue into naive vengefulness and making this play – despite its relatively low kill count compared to some others – the most ethically unsettling of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

That impressive set repeatedly turns this way and that, indicating changes of scene and underlining changes of tone, and providing yet more engaging visuals, as characters stride confidently through arches and along parapets of the moving assemblage. But the more we grow accustomed to the grinding noise of the stage turntable, the more we realize that this handsome yet somewhat stiff production doesn’t deliver the sense of grinding inevitability, the stomach-turning blend of dread and clarity, that makes a truly memorable Othello.

Though Othello, “the Moor of Venice,” gets top billing (it’s his downfall that is the heart of the tragedy, after all), the play’s narrative engine and its real star is Iago, among the greatest villains in all of stage literature.

The part seems an ideal one for Gavin Hoffman, the Portland native who moved back to town a few years ago and has distinguished himself in such productions as Fifth of July with Profile Theatre and Clybourne Park last season at PCS. What augured best for this match was his Drammy-winning turn in The Tripping Point, Shaking the Tree Studio’s marvelous set of liberally reinterpreted fairy tales for the 2012 Fertile Ground festival. In the Matt Zrebski-penned solo vignette To Cape, Hoffman portrayed both the big bad Wolf and Red, in a dialog that occurs while the latter already is in the stomach of the former. Alternately feral and conflicted, innocent and sly, that performance showed an ability to play both sides of a coin, much as the Iago role does.

Daver Morrison as Othello: the mighty, fallen. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Daver Morrison as Othello: the mighty, fallen. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Four years ago at Artists Rep, Todd Van Voris played Iago as a cold calculator able to feign an avuncular warmth and trustworthiness, as a man who understands the codes of social interaction and the emotional levers of behavior precisely because he sees them from such a distance. In 2008 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Dan Donohue’s Iago was an easygoing sociopath, likably relaxed in the company of others, then in private, impishly delighted at his ability to think several steps ahead of everyone else. (Sorry to say, I missed Michael Mendelson’s crack at the part, in Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s 2012 production directed by former Royal Shakespeare Company associate director Bill Alexander.)

Hoffman, by contrast, plays him more as a soldier, a man’s man whose upright posture hides a stunted soul. Hoffman shows a fox-like charm at some moments (smoothly conniving Roderigo under the guise of friendship; playing the mild sycophant to maintain Othello’s trust and the reluctant moralist to plant seeds of doubt in him) and a crocodile’s remorselessness at others (as at the end, when he observes the lethal effects of his handiwork with a smug grin), but overall there’s a kind of gray-toned quality to this portrayal. Psychologically, there’s a good argument for minimizing the difference in Iago’s affect, as Hoffman does here: He feels so justified in his actions that he need not put on much of an act to fool others, nor emphasize his villainy when confessing his schemes to the audience. Dramatically, though, it could use a bit more juice, lest Iago come to seem more disgruntled bureaucrat than grand villain.

Goaded by Iago, soldierly tempers flare. From left: Jared Miller, Timothy Sekk, Chris Harder. Photo: Patrick Weishempel

Goaded by Iago, soldierly tempers flare. From left: Jared Miller, Timothy Sekk, Chris Harder. Photo: Patrick Weishempel

The other performances are a mixed bag. Daver Morrison shows us Othello’s descent in a steadily slumping gait and rising twitchiness, but speaks as though his throat is perpetually clenched. Nikki Coble’s Desdemona is strong in her befuddlement at Othello’s anger and in her pleas for mercy, but in earlier scenes is such a simple sunny innocent that her presence barely registers. Roderigo is a lovestruck sap and a born dupe, but Leif Norby makes him likably so. And there are very good smaller turns by Bill Christ as Desdemona’s angry father, Brabantio, Damon Kupper as a Venetian senator, and Del Lewis as the Duke.

But the finest performance is delivered by recent Portland transplant Dana Green as Iago’s ill-fated wife, Emilia, who comes across as more colorful and credibly multi-dimensional than any other character. She’s funny, cynical, slightly coarse; she’s no saint, but she knows right from wrong and is not entirely shocked yet still genuinely aghast when she recognizes the extent of her husband’s estrangement from such notions. Just weeks ago, Green co-starred with Amy Newman in the taut and powerful drama Gidion’s Knot for Third Rail Rep, yet her look, voice and affect all are so different here that I didn’t recognize her until looking through the playbill much later.

There’s a good chance the rest of the production might catch up with Green. This is a big show, with big emotions, and could well be the kind that will open up over the course of the run, growing more assured and vigorous, looser and more lifelike. Between Fyfe’s set, Susan E. Mickey’s sumptuous costumes, Peter Maradudin’s lighting, and fight scenes sharply choreographed by Kendall Wells, it’s already quite a fine thing to look at. Perhaps, unlike Iago’s schemes, it will all take a turn for the best.

From left: Nikki Coble as Desdemona, Morrison, Jim Vadala and Ricardy Charles Fabre as soldiers, Dana Green as Emilia. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

From left: Nikki Coble as Desdemona, Morrison, Jim Vadala and Ricardy Charles Fabre as soldiers, Dana Green as Emilia. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Swimming in a Shakespeare sea

Ready, Portland? The city's about to binge on the Bard with the Complete Works Project. Why? Because it's there.

A while ago I wondered where all the Shakespeare had gone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Lately I’ve been wondering something of the opposite: what’s Portland going to do with all of this Shakespeare?

By now you might have heard that the city’s theater companies and academic institutions have taken a vow to produce the entire canon in the next two years. “37 plays, 2 years, 1 city,” the sponsoring Complete Works Project trumpets its intentions.

Henry Fuseli, "Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers," c. 1812, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches, Tate Britain, London

Henry Fuseli, “Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers,” c. 1812, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 inches, Tate Britain, London

That’s a lot of blank verse, and otherwise. A lot of murders, and political plots, and mistaken identities, and magical spells, and belly laughs, and meddlesome ghosts, and young lovers, and comic foils, and plays within the plays, and drunken fools, and hot-tempered teenagers, and fairyland creatures, and weird sisters, and ring tricks, and dukes and kings and cutthroats and cutpurses.

The binge begins officially on April 23, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, with a free kickoff celebration three days later at the Gerding Theater at the Armory (where Portland Center Stage’s current Othello is being staged), and ends on April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. (And in Ashland, artistic director Bill Rauch has allayed Bardolators’ fears by announcing that, in spite of cutting back to just three Shakespeares in the 2015 season, the festival by itself will produce the entire canon over the next 10 years.)

Why do this thing? On its Web page, the project answers its own rhetorical question: “Why on Earth not? If we can, we must!”

This is a bit like the mountaineer George Mallory’s response to a query in 1923 about why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Mallory, who had failed in attempts to reach the peak the previous two years and would die the following year in yet a third expedition, famously and perhaps sarcastically replied, “Because it’s there.”


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