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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 23, 2008

'Othello' could use more power, passion

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Derrick Brown stars as the title character, front, and Todd Coolidge plays Iago in Shakespeare's classic tragedy "Othello."

Photo by Brad Goda

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With the classic tragedy "Othello," the opening play in the seventh annual Hawai'i Shakespeare Festival, Scott Rogers directs in a blend of styles that includes traditional declamation, naturalism, and made-for-television reaction shots. If you look deep into the mix, you might find a new insight or two.

A contemporary audience expects a performance to reveal the psychological underpinnings beneath a character's behavior. Why does the battle-hardened leader of men, Othello, give in so easily to innuendo and jealousy? Why is his subordinate, Iago, so thoroughly and amorally destructive? And why does Desdemona, who is headstrong enough to thwart her father by marrying a black man, become so suddenly powerless under her husband Othello's anger?

The simple explanation is that Shakespeare didn't set out to write psychological backstory. He used his characters like chess pieces that moved under his hand to advance his plots. Created by a genius at using language and telling stories, Shakespeare's characters become deeply and richly complex as they are moved about the game board.

The challenge is to work backward from the action to build fully realized kings and queens who move on their own complicated instincts and are not pushed around like pawns. Rogers and his cast have various success at executing that dramatic charge.

Derrick Brown certainly looks the part as Othello. Towering over everyone on stage and easily twice the size of most, he is immediately a powerful, dark presence. But almost as if the director and actor feared to exercise that power, he speaks against type.

Brown's delivery is falling-away conversational and underplayed without emphasis. Cautiously picking his way through the speeches, Brown suggests that Othello may be a novice courtier. Unfortunately, that approach also casts doubt on the character's original credentials as a wartime commander.

All action inevitably leads to the red satin sheets of Desdemona's deathbed, but when Othello finally parts those curtains, the pauses in his delivery outweigh his speeches. The unfortunate effect diminishes the passion and makes us long for him to spit out the lines and get on with the strangulation.

Todd Coolidge, who was an excellent lead in last summer's "King John," does well in the difficult role of Iago. Clear and articulate in speech, his Iago warms up an hour into the first act, when he begins to enjoy his puppet-master control of the whiny and effete Roderigo (Jeremy Dowd) and the hopelessly naive Cassio (Nicholas Gianforti).

Coolidge's performance suggests that Iago may be driven by an unexplained self-hatred into demonizing others. Watch for the nice bit of physical business in which he takes Cassio's grateful kiss from his cheek and plays with it in his outstretched palm as if it were a broken butterfly. But as he cogitates and soliloquizes, Coolidge also gives in to the same pausing and broken delivery that thwarts Othello.

Jessica Ciufo's Desdemona makes us think of Juliet.

In the supporting roles Jerry Altwies (Brabantio) and Erin SuJan Kim (Emilia) handle the language well. Others often swallow their lines or choke them down with difficulty.

All in all, we'd like more rafter-shaking passion in this "Othello" and less soap-opera sensibility.

Joseph T. Rozmiarek has been reviewing theater performances in Hawai'i since 1973.