SO MUCH THEATER OUT THERE NOW! I caught up with five shows while nursing a broken ankle (don’t ask) and most of them were worth going the distance.
OTHELLO at THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER in Cambridge by way of The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is an update on Shakespeare’s tragedy about a noble man of color who murders his white wife. As such this production finds itself at the crossroads of every loaded contemporary issue, and hits its marks. From racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and identity, to political and domestic violence, this production is a remarkably relevant, global tragedy.
As directed by Bill Rauch, this production is timely, uptempo, and technologically attuned as Iago checks e-mail on his phone, and everyone works out at the gym; the actors traverse a sleek set slashing a diagonal out of the dark and into the audience where they enter and exit, look us straight in the eye, and dare to physically touch us. There are video projections conjuring portals to a multicultural, 21st century cosmos dotted with competing news stations, as well as a world of smoke and shadow, sea and sky, seeming and being.
These muscular performances are a universe away from those of James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer’s subtle, monumental, and indelible portrayals of the noble Moor and his slippery lieutenant. Chris Butler’s U.S. Navy Admiral Othello is built like a wrestler with an equally robust ego wrapped around a simmering temper. He’s ready to blow, and Danforth Comin’s Iago comes with barely concealed weapons of Moor destruction. Behind Othello’s back, he mocks, raps, and riffs on a quick impersonation of Brando’s “Godfather.” To Othello’s face, Iago is a latter day Eddie Haskell. (See mid-century sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.”) What are we to make of Othello’s ready gullibility, his being duped by one so crudely conniving? Despite the superficial sophistication of a contemporary world where cultures frequently intersect, there’s plenty of subliminal prejudice to go around, ready to rear its ugly head, and no doubt feeds Othello’s insecurity; he remains off balance, not at home in his own skin– or perhaps anywhere.
The contemporary frame of reference compounds the tragedy, and throws into harsh relief the painfully persistent spectacle of threatened men fighting for power, a battle here fueled by the displacement of identity in the modern world. At rock bottom, it’s still male ego trumping logic, faith, and love as women continue to pay the price. Othello’s ritualized strangulation of the feisty, fearless, and faithful Desdemona (Alejandra Escalante) in their marriage bed is among the most protracted and intimately graphic I’ve ever seen. She fights harder for her life, than he fought for her. In today’s world of fake news, where seeing cannot be believed, and faith plus scrutiny are ever more crucial–Desdemona and her easily-led husband have even less of a chance. Through February 9.
An equally relevant RAGTIME is now playing over at WHEELOCK FAMILY THEATRE, an unusual production for them and not necessarily for kids. I heard one father sitting behind me trying to explain in simple terms, to his confused kids, a plot centered on a turn of the last century family dealing with racism, immigration, industrialization, unionization, and illegitimate children. So be prepared. That said, this production is quite good, despite some technical audio problems. RAGTIME based on E.L. Doctorow’s groundbreaking historical novel, is one of my favorite musicals; its bittersweet score anchored to the new ragtime rhythm of the era, haunts me every time I hear it.
This cast does it proud especially Anthony Pires, Jr who brings swagger and gravitas to the central role of musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. He’s matched by Pier Lamia Porter as the tragic Sara, the mother of his child. Their soaring voices, and those of a terrific ensemble stir us; the sets of towering movable book cases, and clever evocations of a car and a piano are just right. The show remains especially timely as it deals with the limits of the American Dream, the forging of the ever fluid American identity and the pursuit of justice in a constantly shifting multicultural world. Through February 17.
See THE WOLVES at the LYRIC STAGE COMPANY about a pack of girls on a HS indoor soccer team, that unfolds in a series of short, vibrant interlocking episodes as they stretch, and warmup before hitting the field. Playwright Sarah DeLappe demonstrates an extraordinary ear for the real, funny, ribald, harsh, innocent, angry, supercharged dialogue among teenage girls skirmishing over life. No topic off limits, from genocide and eating disorders to abortion, sexual orientation, waxing and zits. The author’s goal? “I wanted to see a portrait of teenage girls as human beings – as complicated, nuanced, very idiosyncratic people, athletes and daughters and students and scholars and people who are trying actively to figure out who they are in this changing world around them.” Mission accomplished. This ensemble nails it. I felt like a voyeur in this locker room; it took me right back to those fraught and scary days on the cusp of adulthood, warming up, trying to figure out who would be on my team. A. Nora Long directs a nonstop 90 minutes on a set encircled by netting, and soccer balls headed our way. SCORE. Through February 3.
HEARTLAND over at NEW REP THEATRE is a decent, and even enlightening play, but a tepid drama about America’s complicity in the creation of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and by extension the conundrum that is the middle east. The play unfolds in a series of flashbacks when Dr. Harold Banks (Ken Baltin) opens the door to an Afghan refugee Nasrullah (Shawn K. Jain) who knew his adopted Pakistani daughter Getee (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy). Well-meaning and well-acted, there’s little dramatic arc; the play feels more concerned with teachable moments than dramatic ones, and our emotional engagement suffers. At the Black Box Theater in Watertown’s Mosesian Center for the Arts Through February 9.
Finally, WELL at WELLESLEY REPERTORY THEATRE, Tony Award-winning playwright (FUN HOME) Lisa Kron’s 100 minute play about a daughter trying to understand her chronically sick mother’s inability to get well (though she heals a community) is 98 minutes too long. One truly smart, funny line lands early on: “Parents live in an alternate universe where your therapy has no power.” But this difficult to pull off “anti play” is a rambling monologue– with other characters–and the actors who play them would have benefitted from a direction not to “overact.” The play failed to enlighten me about health, or community, or mother/daughter relationships, and merely reaffirmed what we all know: truth is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder was bored. At the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre on the Wellesley College campus through February 10.