A word or two before you head out to see the Segal Centre’s production of Othello running until Dec. 1. It is only the third time the Segal has done Shakespeare, so one wonders why it decided to tackle what is arguably the most difficult play in the canon. It is certainly a stretch to suggest, as artistic producer Paul Flicker does in the program that Othello is a work that might foster intercultural understanding. Nor does it have anything to do with the Charter of Quebec values. Othello is a sexual tragedy, a story of twisted relationships that encompasses inter-racial marriage, prejudice, jealousy, calumny, insecurity and murder. It all begins when Othello, a North African who has risen through the ranks to command a Venetian garrison, promotes one of his officers, Cassio, instead giving his friend, Iago the position. With that, Iago declares that he “hates the Moor,” and plots to make Othello believe his well-bred wife, Desdemona, is having an affair. Director Allison Darcy has cut the story to its bare bones, which is fine. But her melodramatic concept is both overwrought and underwhelming. Yes, Shakespeare uses water as a metaphor, and yes, at one point Othello believes Desdemona to be “as false as water.” But does the stage need to be dripping in it.? By the end Desdemona splashes around in so much water that we are left to wonder whether she has drowned instead of being strangled in her bed. Yes, there is the imagery of darkness in the play, but that doesn’t mean it has to be mounted in almost total darkness.
It gets off to a less than promising beginning. Theatrical pioneer Maurice Podbrey gives us a befuddled Brabantio, sputtering disapproval of his daughter’s marriage to Othello. Amanda Lisman is a beguiling, openhearted Desdemona, who enchants from the moment she appears. But when Sean Arbuckle as a creepy Iago hatches his ill- fated scheme to destroy Othello by mentally torturing him, the show veers off into melodramatic territory. Arbuckle’s Iago is a one-dimensional villain with none of the sociopathic charm that would make an audience like him. Andrew Moodie as Othello is a good actor in contemporary plays and even though he’s played the part to acclaim before in Toronto, he doesn’t quite measure up in the Segal’s production. He invests the part with energy and epileptic bombast but it is hard to imagine him as the charismatic general with an inferiority complex. Julio Tamiko Mannning is wonderfully authorative as Emilia, Desdemona’s earthy maidservant. Daniel Brochu as Cassio, Marcel Jeannin as Roderigo, Paul Hopkins as Montano, Daniel Lillford as the Duke of Venice, and Gitanjali Jain as Bianca all aquit themselves nicely in their respective supporting roles. Perhaps, though, all could have used a bit more rehearsal time to master the rhythms of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.
The sword fighting, choreographed by jean-Francois Gagnon, is thrilling, and there are some visually arresting moments especially an inventive mythical sea-storm and the slash of white drapery which falls through the dark to set the stage for the chilling murder. Veronique Bertrand is responsible for the spare set with its symbolic curiosity cabinets and for the elegant costumes; Nicholas Descoteaux for the unusually gloomy lighting. Sound designer David Oppenheim has made good use of Monteverdi’s music. From time to time sparks in the production shine through, but overall this Othello is so waterlogged they fail to ignite.