Kill Joy

St. Louis Shakespeare nails Othello.

How is it possible to find enjoyment in something as horrible as the murder-suicide of a husband and wife? And how is it possible to take such delight in the odious behavior of a conniving snake who machinates the deaths of a loving husband and wife? Are we as a society really so inured to suffering that we view violence as mere entertainment, a pleasant little diversion for an evening out?

Yes, in the case of Othello. Maybe not "pleasant," but as an enjoyable evening out, yes, a thousand times yes.

Shakespeare's tragedy of the Moorish general, Othello, who is deceived by his second-in-command, Iago, into the murder of his white wife, Desdemona, is easy to misrepresent as a tale of black celebrity brought low by the racism of one man. But as directed by Donna Northcott in St. Louis Shakespeare's current production, the story is not one of racial hatred, but of Iago's jealousy destroying the lives of everyone involved. And the tragedy is not just the deaths of husband and wife, but of the destruction of the only noble man in the proceedings, Othello.

Alfonso Freeman and Ben Ritchie star in the beautifully tragic Othello.
Alfonso Freeman and Ben Ritchie star in the beautifully tragic Othello.

Details

St. Louis Shakespeare
Through July 29 at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square. Tickets are $20-22 ($15 for students, $18-$20 for seniors). Call 314-361-5664 or visit www.stlshakespeare.org.

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Alfonso Freeman (son of Morgan) brings a burly physicality to the role of Othello, and a commanding voice. Freeman suffered a bit from a hurried delivery in the opening moments, but he quickly reined in the language. He creates a sense of Othello's greatness through small actions; When Desdemona's father, Brabantio (played viciously by Robert Ashton), accuses Othello of stealing his daughter in the first scene, Othello answers the vitriol with confident dignity. While Brabantio scorns his daughter for her betrayal, Othello gently takes Desdemona (Belinda Quimby) by the hand and leans against her, a loving husband offering unshakable support. Quimby possesses a lovely, clear voice; she plays the role with the graceful strength of a woman who could capture the heart and mind of a great general.

Of course, the architect of this love's doom is Iago, played with canny malice by Myron Freedman. Angry at Othello for promoting Cassio (the very entertaining Ben Ritchie) over himself, Iago plans the Moor's downfall. Freedman's Iago is duplicitous in word and deed and action. There's a cajoling tone in his voice when he addresses the other actors, and he gesticulates floridly; when he addresses the audience, that tone transforms to a steely timbre, and his hands move in compact little gestures. Freedman never overdoes this shift, but he plays it to the breaking point at least once: When Othello praises him as "honest Iago," Freedman turns to the crowd with a "Did you hear that oaf?" twist of his mouth, and the audience laughs. It's a masterful moment.

Freeman and Freedman provide a deeply satisfying balance for one another. Othello's early dignity is pecked away slowly; he erupts in volcanic bursts of anger at his wife, and no longer touches her — except when he strikes her, a profoundly ugly moment that Quimby sells with a tremendous look of hurt and shame. Iago, in turn, becomes less human himself the more he twists Othello's mind. At one point Othello is hunched over in pain at his wife's perceived betrayal, and Iago tremulously reaches out a hand to his shoulder. There's the briefest flicker of something akin to human kindness in the hesitation, and a palpable evil in the slap he delivers to his master's shoulder — in Iago's eyes you can see the dagger he's imagining plunging into his former friend's back.

But it is Othello who stabs himself in the end, after Iago has ruined everyone, black and white, and Freeman does it with sudden finality. But Iago is still alive, and it is he who provides the final, horrific note. As the Governor of Cyprus pronounces a sentence of death by torture for Iago, the "super-subtle Venetian" is prostrate, his hunched shoulders shaking. What are assumed to be sobs of regret, or fear, turn out to be mocking laughter as Iago is hoisted to his feet. He's accomplished everything he set out to do, and even in the face of his own death, he finds delight in the carnage he has wrought. It's absolutely terrible — and sublimely thrilling to witness. Not pleasant, but what a night.

 
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