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Othello under the chaste stars

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JUNE 26, 2014 5:00 AM

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Riverside Theater actor Kelly Gibson has a challenging — though, in the realm of Shakespeare, not altogether uncommon — responsibility as Othello’s Desdemona: She must die.

“We rehearsed the smothering scene the other day, and I have to say, it’s really fun,” she said. “Other people said they couldn’t even watch it, it was too horrifying, and that’s part of what I love about theater: We get to delve into human emotions and extremes … real life doesn’t use up enough of our soul.”

Riverside intends to sap the audience member’s souls for its Theater in the Park production of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello, which will première at 8 p.m. Friday at the outdoor Festival Stage in Lower City Park. Othello will run through July 6 (with the exception of July 4, which will feature The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised]) as part of the theater company’s summer season, Riverside Theater in the Park.

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Othello will be paired with the vaudevillian comedy The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] — which premièred June 20 and will run through July 13, except, of course, when Othello is on stage.

“I love directing Shakespeare, because I know at the end, I’m going to be a smarter person,” said Theodore Swetz, the director of Othello. “I’m not one of those directors who thinks you just have to hear the beautiful words. It’s not a concert piece … Here at Riverside, we’re dedicated to visceral storytelling.”

The story at the heart of Othello is often considered the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Fresh from victory, Othello, a respectable commander, overcomes issues of ethnicity, age, and status to marry the young Desdemona. But the couple’s bliss is extinguished by the vindictive Iago, Othello’s most trusted adviser whom Othello passed over for a promotion. Iago slowly drives the hero mad by persuading him that his wife is unfaithful.

“Jealousy can’t exist in your world unless you have great love, and that makes it a very dangerous thing,” Swetz said. “When you’re watching Othello, you really get it.”

Swetz said the “engine” behind this compelling plot is Iago, who is ingenious in his remolding of Othello’s psyche.

“You’re going to experience a good man being tainted with a lie,” Swetz said. “You’re sitting there knowing it’s a lie, and you’ll see how evil works in the world. It’s pretty frightening to watch a play unfold in front of you with a man who has no conscience.”

Iago actor Tim Budd, who has performed for Riverside Theater in the Park for nine years, said he found some evidence that John Milton may have even used the notorious villain as inspiration for the character of Satan in his 1667 epic poem “Paradise Lost.”

“He’s not like the other Shakespeare villains, who want a crown or throne. He doing it because he’s mad at these people, and he won’t stop until he ruins their lives,” Budd said. “It’s a very brutal show, and I’m hoping [audiences] realize how exciting this kind of theater can be.”

Daver Morrison (Othello) — who has played the iconic role twice before in Illinois and Oregon — said the drama of the 411-year-old play may not be as antiquated as some modern theater-goers might presume.

“I think we’re very familiar with all the themes that are in Othello, with love and romance and jealousy, envy, betrayal,” Morrison said. “We still see it all the time in television and movies. It’s a very moving piece.”

With Othello packing an emotional punch, Riverside decided to select an exceptionally lighthearted piece for Theater in the Park’s second show, one even more comedic than A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Summarizing 37 Shakespeare plays in 104 minutes, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare — a three-man sketch comedy originally written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield — fit the bill.

“We’ve done so much Shakespeare, but we’ve never done a send-up or parody of this playwright we love so much,” said Complete Works director Ron Clark. “It has a whole lot of affection for his work but finds amazingly humorous ways to explore these incredibly complex plays.

“What if John Oliver and Jon Stewart got together to explain today’s news, and that news happened to be the War of the Roses? That’s this play.”

Clark said the first week of performances had audiences on their feet cheering — an effect he hopes will be enhanced with the première of Othello; in Complete Works, the tragedy is summarized with a five-minute rap. The play also spends 10 minutes on Romeo and Juliet and a whole act on Hamlet, acting as a comedic “antidote” to these famous sob stories.

“Tragedy should place a burden on the audience for a while, and on the other hand, comedy lifts that burden for a little while,” Gibson said. “They’re both necessary for the human condition.”

Humans aren’t the only ones to explore this phenomenon. On July 4, audiences are welcome to bring their dogs to the 6 p.m. performance of Complete Works, encouraging donations to the Iowa City animal shelter.

This “Dog’s Night at the Park” isn’t the only perk to having an outdoor-theater venue. The tradition was sparked in Shakespeare’s day, when performances of his plays were held at the ceiling-less Globe Theater — after which Riverside modeled its Lower City Park stage.

“Oh my God, it’s heaven,” Swetz said. “You sit in that park, and your work has to be as beautiful and magnificent as all the nature surrounding the theater. The space around is so alive: people fishing in the pond, picnicking on the hill, playing baseball across the road … we lose some technical ability, but what we gain with intimacy and nature is far better.”

Gibson said outdoor challenges such as bugs and rain only increase the camaraderie between Riverside’s cast and audience as they marvel at Shakespeare’s language under the “chaste stars” Othello describes.

“The humanity is so present in Shakespeare’s work that it’s all there for you as an actor,” she said. “It’s built into the text and story. He gives it to you, and I think that’s the masterpiece of his work.”

Aside from the thrill of getting to play a dying woman onstage, Gibson said, the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s work is one reason she prefers classical theater to most modern drama — and why Riverside continues to keep its Shakespeare-centric summer programming alive.

“There’s a timeless quality to it that I don’t usually get with contemporary theater,” she said. “I usually find it more soulful. There’s just something magical about Shakespeare.”


THEATER

Othello
Where: Outdoor Festival Stage in Lower City Park
When: 8 p.m. June 27-28, July 2-3
7 p.m. June 29, July 1, July 5-6
Admission: $18-$40

Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Where: Outdoor Festival Stage in Lower City Park
When: 6 p.m. July 4
7 p.m. July 8, July 13
8 p.m. July 9-12
Admission: $18-$40


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