In 1594, England suffered the first of five bad harvests – prompting the beginning of a paralyzing economic recession – and endured another outbreak of the bubonic plague. Sounds like fun, right?
Take note, Recession Renaissance unbelievers: In the early 1590s, even when London’s theaters were closed to prevent further spread of the plague, William Shakespeare was credited with the creation of his earliest works – histories Richard III and Henry VI, and tragedy Titus Andronicus. Some contend he also wrote The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1594. The next decade (1595-1605) was his most prolific, with more than 20 plays written, including some of his most beloved: Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6), Hamlet (1600-01), Othello (1604), King Lear and Macbeth (both 1605-06). [Source: The New York Times’ Guide to Essential Knowledge. See Charlene, I use it!]
Admittedly, debate ensues over whether Shakespeare even wrote these plays, but for the sake of argument, let’s agree that they exist and came from around this time period. I can’t think of a better example of something good coming from such a rotten time. Except for maybe the new $.89 burrito at Taco Bell.
As we sludge through our own recession, I recommend holing up in a dark theater or on a park lawn with a picnic and watching a summer production of Shakespeare. It helps take the edge off things. In Seattle, the Bard is in abundance: the Seattle Shakespeare Company is putting on free performances of The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III around King County through Aug. 2 — check the website for details. Non-profit Seattle’s Shakespeare in the Park is throwing down some kind of turf war by also putting on free performances around the area, through Aug. 15, of The Comedy of Errors and King John.
Not so free, but definitely worth noting: Intiman Theatre (near the Seattle Center) is currently hosting Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Othello until Aug. 2. What started as an Off Broadway show in New York is now receiving standing ovations in Seattle. At least, it did last night when I attended. I was impressed — I typically only see that when I go to my mother’s community theater performances, where the audience is 97% family and friends.
Intiman’s Othello stars Sean Patrick Thomas as the Moor, Othello — a.k.a. the guy who taught a white girl (Julia Stiles) rhythm in the movie Save the Last Dance.
If this performance is any indication of Thomas’s acting chops, he’s moved on considerably since then. Though he’s a few inches shorter than his on-stage love, Desdemona (played tearfully by Elisabeth Waterson), he can convey a larger presence, particularly during a scene where his jealousy sends him into an epileptic fit. He writes about so convincingly, you think he might disintegrate — just shrivel up like the Wicked Witch of the West in her final scene.
However, Othello is one of the Bard’s greatest because of the extremity of its emotions — passion, jealousy, betrayal, racism, fear. And unfortunately, this production lacks about a notch or two of intensity. It starts with a minimalist set: stark (but recession-friendly!), with a table, bed, handkerchief and basket of linens on rotation as props. From there, it walks the line, teasing with epileptic fits and haunting dirges (sung by Desdemona before her death), but ultimately not delivering the searing emotion one comes to expect from this tragedy.
In particular, I wasn’t entirely convinced of Iago’s villainy. Though the performance by classically trained actor John Campion was admirable, I couldn’t help comparing it to one I saw back in college, when “the Ancient” Iago was played by a handsome 21-year-old blond. That collegiate Iago was multidimensional, in turns both charming and dreadful, impassioned and icy cool. Simply put, he was menacing. Campion’s Iago was not. With his muddled accent, he seemed more a meddler than anything else.
There’s a talented supporting cast — extra applause goes to Robert Langdon Lloyd’s short turn as The Duke, which got some of the night’s biggest laughs, and Lucas Hall as a charmingly oblivious Cassio. All in all, it was an entertaining performance, and for any fan of Othello, one worth checking out. Tickets are $10-$55; performance runs 2 hrs 55 minutes with an intermission. http://www.intiman.org
Shakespeare always gets a thumbs-up.