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Review: African-American Shakespeare Company stages a sizzling ‘Othello’

By October 24, 2019 No Comments
Othello (L. Peter Callender) tells Desdemona (Isabel Siragusa) she must die tonight in the African-American Shakespeare Company's production of "Othello." (Photos by Joseph Giammarco)

L. Peter Callender, artistic director of the African-American Shakespeare Company, may have waited all his life to take on the role of Othello. It’s been worth the wait.

Callender’s voice  inhabits the role so powerfully that any physical element would seem unnecessary. Still, he has the ability to dramatize his feelings when confronted with his new bride’s possible infidelity, or to portray the general who commands his field troops with thunderous authority.

Othello’s enemy Iago plants the suspicion about Desdemona’s infidelity; Michael Ray Wisely’s portrayal of the dark force that is Iago is equally intense as he confides to Othello that Desdemona and Cassio, a soldier who Othello has promoted above him, are having an affair.

The two create an almost unbearable intensity — it’s as if the walls of the theater might implode at any moment. Wisely delivers his lines simply and with complete clarity, his deceit always to the fore. Iago is the mover, and it is essential that an authoritative actor play the role potently and completely.

This “Othello’’ celebrates Shakespeare not in the Venice and Cyprus wars of the the original, but in a contemporary U.S. Army base in the Middle East, where extreme tension is a given. Othello heads that army, and in a way the contemporary setting strengthens Shakespeare’s pointed exploration of racial difference between the African American general and his white sergeant.

Director Carl Jordan’s occasional use of current language is unobtrusive and strengthens the case for the contemporary setting.

Iago (Michael Ray Wisely) coaxes his wife, Emilia, (Champagne Hughes) to provide him with Desdemona’s sentimental handkerchief in “Othello.”

Two other actors strike fire in this production: Champagne Hughes plays Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s confidante, with a ferocity that underscores the thematic misogyny of the play, and Ariel Sandino’s Cassio is both charming and naive.  Youthful and handsome, Cassio becomes the focus of Othello’s anger.

Isabel Siragusa’s Desdemona is less convincing. She appears to be a suitable wife for Othello in the opening scenes, fresh and loving, but as Othello turns on her and shows his wrath, she lets down and becomes almost transparent, so that the drive to the play’s end is one-sided and less convincing.

There are many moments of sheer magic in the production.

For example when the troops are celebrating a military victory, they dance with female partners in a show of joy and sexual desire that lightens the scene and erases any traces of tension. Durand Garcia’s choreography is striking, especially in the fight scenes.

Cayla Ray-Perry’s set makes the most of the stage space: a two-level barrack structure that serves as Othello’s lodging and sets him above the other characters when he speaks to the troops, and Kevin Myrick’s lighting design enhances the sense of dread that propels the drama to its tragic ending.

The African-American Shakespeare Company’s “Othello’’ is well worth a visit. It runs at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco through Oct. 27. The next production to be staged by the company will be “Cinderella,’’ showing during the month of December