OTHELLO. By William Shakespeare, directed by Frederic De Feis. Arena Players
Repertory Company at Suffolk Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Rd.,
Centerport. Seen at last Friday's performance. Continues through Sept. 1,
Wednesday through Friday, and Sunday evenings.
The stunning courtyard of the Vanderbilt Museum makes a dramatic setting
for the Arena Players Summer Shakespeare Festival's "Othello." With its
sweeping staircase and Spanish accent, it is elegant and exotic, just like the
production it now hosts.
Why exotic? Well, for starters, the Moor of Venice is now the Black of
Angola, and the actor playing him is currently, according to the production
notes, the "only" black Polish actor. Directed by Frederic De Feis, this
"Othello" sees its title character as a colonial naif from Portuguese Angola
used by the establishment in Lisbon for its own military ends. As played by
Omar Sangare, Othello is elegant, but it's the elegance of an outsider marked
by the color of his skin.
Sangare is the soul of this production. One wonders which came first, the
overall concept or his casting. It doesn't matter: The two fit together like
yin and yang. He is mesmerizing. His is a smiling Othello, whose amusement at
those around him may be a little patronizing but, at least initially, bears no
malice. He gives Othello the arrogance but also the insecurity of someone who
thinks he knows everything.
Sangare's Othello is very much the general, commanding the stage as he
would his legions. His body language is precise and majestic. One doesn't
always agree with his choices, but one admires the intensity with which he
makes them. He speaks his lines with an accent, which is sometimes at odds with
Shakespeare's meter, but underscores his implicit alienation as a dark-skinned
foreigner in a white society.
In the critical role of Iago, Stephen Wangner took a while to get
comfortable at the performance I saw, but by the end of the first act had
settled into a convincing and entertaining portrayal. Sangare's youth makes
Carolyn Popadin seem a bit old for Desdemona, and Christine Lobasso-Sullivan is
a young Emilia, but they both give excellent performances.
Director DeFeis' vision of Othello as a victim not only of his own pride
but also of a racist society comes through loud and clear. I think this would
have been equally true without the wholesale alteration of Shakespeare's
geography, which I found distracting. De Feis need not take his concept so
literally. His decision to change every reference to "the Moor" to "the Black"
is equally jarring, but more defensible. It drives home both Othello's color
and his dehumanization. Purists may object, but it accomplishes its goal.
If the sensual beauty of the courtyard of the Vanderbilt Museum on a summer
night is not enough to lure you to Centerport, let the charismatic intensity
of Omar Sangare as Othello do so. This is an intelligent interpretation of what
is arguably Shakespeare's most purely dramatic play.