So, I’m sitting on the couch watching part 2 of “Hatfields & McCoys” when The Wife comes to me and says,
“Guess what we’re doing tonight.”
“Watching part 3 of “Hatfields and McCoys?”
“No. We’re going to the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis production of Othello!”
“Oh. Is it that time of year again? You know, ‘Hatfields and McCoys’ is an epic, tragic tale of two families torn apart by misunderstandings and petty feuding — it’s like Shakespeare with hillbillies.”
“Hillbillies don’t speak in iambic pentameter.”
“Exactly. And that’s why no one understands Shakespeare. Everyone understands hillbillies.”
“We’re done here. Be ready to leave at 4:30.”
And so it was that yesterday afternoon we packed up a cooler and a picnic basket and headed to Forest Park. We stopped along the way to pick up some Chick-fil-A (the official chicken sandwich of The Bard) and dropped The Son off at The Mother-In-Law’s.
It was a beautiful night for theater in the park. The sky was clear, it wasn’t too hot or humid. So naturally, every man, woman and child in St. Louis was there. Did I mention the show is free? We somehow managed to snag a parking spot in our usual lot after circling only once. Did I mention we got there three hours before show time?
We found a decent spot to set up our lawn chairs and the wait began. The Wife checked out the souvenir stand and came back with a couple of belated Mother’s Day presents (there’s a reason I don’t buy her gifts a few weeks before Shakespeare Festival St. Louis). When she got back I made the long trek back to the car and found four issues of the Riverfront Times in the trunk that I hadn’t read and hauled them back. Before you knew it, it was time to raise the curtain — if there had been a curtain.
For the Shakespeare-impaired, “Othello” is the story of Othello the Moor (Billy Eugene Jones), a general in the Venetian army, recently wed to Desdemona (Heather Wood), daughter of a Venetian senator. Their fairy tale marriage falls apart due to the machinations of Iago (Justin Blanchard), Othello’s trusted ensign who turns out to be anything but trustworthy.
Iago is upset that Othello passed him up for a promotion in favor of Michael Cassio (Joshua Thomas). Rather than just live with the disappointment or quit — like most people would — Iago decides to destroy everyone’s lives by leading Othello to believe that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. It all ends in murder and tragedy. That’s not a spoiler because pretty much all Shakespeare ends in murder and tragedy.
There’s more to the story, of course, but I’ve learned that the best way to deal with Shakespeare is to just let if flow over you and try to understand what bits and pieces you can. I have no idea who Roderigo is or what his role in all this was.
I enjoyed “Othello” more than I was expecting. It’s not overloaded with characters and subplots and I got the gist of it, which is all I ask of Shakespeare. The actors were good as usual and the stage design was, well, it’s the same basic set design they always use but it looked nice. They added a bunch of large gears to the backdrop, for symbolism I guess. Symbolism — like time travel — gives me a headache.
The one issue I had with the staging involved the big climactic scenes in the bedroom. For one thing, the scene between Desdemona and Emilia (Kim Stauffer) really dragged and brought the second act to a screeching halt (the show had been moving at a pretty brisk pace to that point). It might have helped if Desde hadn’t been wearing such a frumpy nightgown.
But the big problem was that the bed was lower center stage where you couldn’t see what was going on over the heads of the people sitting in front of you (at least I couldn’t). Violent death scenes lose their impact if you can’t see them.
According to the director’s notes, the story takes place in 1912, which I’m pretty sure is after Shakespeare wrote it, but I didn’t notice that they had updated it in any significant way. At least not significant enough to annoy The Wife. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a belly-dancing scene in the original (given that women weren’t on stage in The Bard’s day) but that’s the kind of update I can get behind.
Overall, a good night of theater. The Wife enjoyed it a great deal, which is the main reason I put up with this every year. The weather was perfect and the music from the nearby bars didn’t drown out the closing monologues, as sometimes happens.
Othello runs through June 17. https://www.sfstl.com/