Beautiful Lies

Othello
By Giuseppi Verdi; libretto by Arrigo Boito, after the tragedy
by William Shakespeare
Opera Theatre of St. Louis

The set of Verdi's Othello, which opened Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 1999 season last Saturday evening, is dominated by a huge stone lion's head. It sits on the house-left side of the stage and tilts up, its great maw open, with huge fangs exposed. Its nostrils, however, suggest a pit viper's, and the upper fangs look as much like a snake's as a lion's. Is it the symbolic lion of the great merchant city-state of renaissance Venice? Or the "lion," as Iago styles him ironically, that Othello becomes when he knocks his wife down in full sight of all the people? At one point, Iago -- a serpent if ever there were one -- lolls across the head's mammalian tongue; at others he comes onstage through the maw itself. And Iago, as the head would if it were a living creature, strikes, whether ravenous lion or subtle serpent, from below, venomous as a snake, implacable as a lion.

As the stone lion's head dominates the set, so Iago dominates this production of Othello. His plots and lies drive the action and bring down his general, Othello, who has favored another officer, Cassio, over him. He destroys Othello's wife, Desdemona; his own, Emilia; and a young fellow, Roderigo, who loves Desdemona in vain. His powerful, melodious music, set in the baritone range to indicate a man in the prime of life, seems ever present. When Desdemona prays, kneeling at her bedside, we wait for Iago's music; when Othello, isolated from all but Iago, soliloquizes, we wait for Iago to enter and goad him into action.

Louis Otey, the baritone who is singing Iago for Opera Theatre, is entirely worthy of the role. Besides a wonderfully smooth and musical voice, Otey also has the physique for the role -- tall, broad-shouldered, well proportioned. Otey's Iago has the presence of a successful general, the air of a man who deserves to lead, unlike Cassio who, as Theodore Green plays him, is boyish, without the figure of a general, with a sweet tenor more suited to the parlor than the battleground. And Othello himself is another tenor; his voice is not pitched as high as Cassio's, but it's still more boyish, less mature, even less masculine than Iago's baritone. Robert Brubaker, the production's Othello, is a smaller man than Otey, not only shorter but less powerfully built. When he stops a duel Iago has stirred up between Cassio and a much less senior officer, Brubaker seems impressive enough in Act 1, but he seems to shrink physically, to gray and age throughout the course of the action, ending up almost an old man when he finally kills himself. Soprano Marie Plette makes a sweet and innocent, if not terribly girlish, Desdemona: Her Act 4 "Willow Song" and "Prayer to the Virgin" are both tremendously affecting. Baritone James Creswell's Lodovico is sure; mezzo-soprano Dorothy Byrne (who acts wonderfully) is a sympathetic and tuneful Emilia.

Colin Graham has made this Othello an intensely theatrical, completely absorbing experience, in almost every way so well staged, well acted and well sung that you forget you're at an opera. You know, of course, that the characters are singing, but that's what such people in such a situation should be doing, for their emotions, their acts, their very lives are so intense and vivid that they sing like we talk. Verdi's music for Othello is as splendid as any he ever composed, and the opera has arias, duets (oh, does it have duets!) and ensemble pieces that would usually cause the audience to interrupt the flow of the opera with applause. On opening night, however, not once did the audience intrude, and it certainly was not because people weren't singing well. Rather, the singing and acting were so good that the audience was not listening to the music piece by piece but as a whole. They would no more have stopped this production to applaud an aria than they would have interrupted Othello the play with applause for a soliloquy. I cannot think of another opera director except Graham who can achieve such unity of music and drama.

-- Harry Weber

Waiting for Godot
By Samuel Beckett
Midnight Productions

Hamlet said the theater should hold a mirror up to nature. In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett held a mirror up to the world at the middle of the 20th century. In that mirror, humanity saw the glories of Western civilization, glories that had been mocked by the horrors of two world wars, reduced to the image of a pair of tramps scrambling to survive in a desolate wasteland. The tramps think they remember when things were better. Now they exist from day to day on the hope that someone named Godot will show up and give them -- what? They aren't sure. But the hope keeps them going from one day to the next -- tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. It's a pointless life -- absurd, to use the word popularized by the existentialist philosophers of the time. And so Beckett's plays became the theater of the absurd.

Theater they are. What could be more theatrical than a couple of baggy-pants comedians going through their routines -- the old tight-shoes bit, the oldmultiple-hats bit. One of them even does the drop-your-baggy-pants bit. Tragic farce, some have called it. For we are in the tragic world of Lear, a world of pointless suffering. But there are no kings and no grandeur in the suffering, just a couple of little guys with sore feet and a urinary-tract infection. No kingdoms are at stake, just another day to be endured until Godot either comes or doesn't come. The clowns stumble around, farcically, but the absurdity keeps shifting from the brightly comic to the darkly tragic.

Beckett has calibrated this action of waiting very carefully. Though his protagonists lead meager lives, their words and activities radiate surprising energy and resonate with implications. Some passages, like the one about the dead voices, achieve a musical quality. Those who know Godot inside out know precisely how these words and actions should be performed, much as they know precisely how Hamlet should be performed or a Beethoven symphony should be played -- what the tempi should be, where the emphases should be placed. No actual performance will ever quite match that ideal.

Given that fact, yes, I think the current staging by Midnight Productions often fails to give full value to the script's pauses and could make more of its transitions. But under Michelle Rebollo's direction, the performers often get the music right. Joe Hanrahan surprised me with the range of his performance as Estragon. I especially like the ways he gives vent to the character's frustrated anger. His Estragon is clearly a man of feeling, of instant response, not reflection.

Vladimir, in contrast, controls his emotions -- it hurts to laugh -- and tries to think things through. I have often been impressed by David Wassilak's ability to imply turbulent inner activity beneath a passive surface. But this time I too often saw just the passive surface and glimpsed the reality of the character beneath it only occasionally.

Not physically imposing, Larry Dell might seem a curious choice for Pozzo, the wealthy, domineering master of the abused servant Lucky. But Dell makes it work by playing Pozzo as a kind of country squire, confident in his superiority, humorous and ironic, only rarely needing to raise his voice. As the suffering servant who delivers a garbled message about God, Christopher Lawyer suffers convincingly. He has chosen to deliver the message like an automaton, with little expression until he grows frantic at the end -- not, for me, the best choice, but certainly a justifiable one. As Godot's messenger, young Colin Fay reacts well in his encounters with the two tramps.

Wassilak's set and lighting create an exact visual image for the play on the small St. Marcus stage -- stark white walls, a jagged black tree and a large rock. Betsy Krausnick has provided costumes realistically appropriate to the characters' stations.

Best of all, this Godot doesn't push either to be funny or to be meaningful. That's as it should be.

-- Bob Wilcox

Harvey
By Mary Chase
Alpha Players

The occasional sly digs in the script supply just enough vinegar to keep the delightful whimsy of Mary Chase's Harvey from being cloying. I almost always enjoy this gently satirical fantasy, and I enjoyed it again at the Alpha Players.

Chase's dialogue can sound a little stilted these days. It must be handled with care. So must her characters, who all deserve at least a little of our sympathy. Sometimes the players at Alpha go overboard in making them ridiculous and lose their humanity. And too often the pace sags from lax cue pickup and hesitant line delivery. But led by Brian Hassell's winsome performance of Elwood P. Dowd, the production preserves the charm of Chase's comedy despite these occasional lapses.

-- Bob Wilcox

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