Common Ground Theatre, that simple, effective space on the outskirts of town, is once again the venue for interesting theater by a passionate, ambitious local theater troupe. Bare Theatre, which eschews sets and props in favor of focus on a play's text, is presenting Shakespeare's Othello there through the 17th, before moving it to the Holly Springs Cultural Center Feb. 21 and 22. Directed by Carmen-maria Mandley, with choreography by Heather J. Hackford, the production features Byron Jennings as Othello, Hackford as Desdemona, Seth Blum as Iago, and Rebecca Blum as Emilia, the story's most tragic character.
After a danced prologue by Hackford and Jennings, director Mandley has given the already action-packed storyline a frenetic pace. Although there are no sets, there are a couple of benches and a table that have to be moved for every scene, and that, together with the general movement design, causes a vast amount of in-and-outing and back-and-forthing and circling around and behind the stage, not to mention climbing on the benches. The actors also speak rapidly, and all this rushing sometimes works unkindly on our appreciation of the speeches, and on our ability to fully experience the building anxiety of approaching tragedy, or even the tragedies themselves when they come. These directorial choices were probably meant to make us feel swept into the vortex of the play's uncontrollable storm, but some variation in pacing might serve that end better.
However, there are some strong characterizations here. As Iago's wife Emilia, Rebecca Blum gives the most powerful performance of the evening in her final scene. She is deeply touching in her dawning understanding of Iago's perfidy and her own complicity in it, magnificent in her fury, and heartbreaking in her desolate, honorable death. This is also one of the few times in the production where nobody is rushing around, so one can savor her speeches — and actually hear them. Sadly, not all the actors have the vocal skills to overcome the difficult acoustics of the bare space, which the troupe further compounded by having a group of drummers stage-side.
Byron Jennings is fully capable of making himself heard, and in most cases, understood. He is most effective in his moments of jealous suspicion and fury. Heather J. Hackford, in contrast, was most satisfying in her days of innocence and happiness — something very hard to pull off. She is lovely in her dignity when she explains the duties of wife and of daughter to her father, and again in the mirrored moment when she acknowledges her imminent death.
Also notable are Jeff Buckner as Roderigo, the poor dupe used and murdered by Iago, and Kacey Reynolds as Cassio. She has a marvelous voice and was very funny in the scene where Cassio's martial rectitude gives way to the blandishments of Iago's liquor flask.
But Seth Blum's Iago is especially interesting. Though he has the most fully realized period costuming, this Iago seems absolutely contemporary — the very model of a modern corporate or political manipulator. Characterizing him this way subtly guides us toward viewing the play at least as much as a communal or civic tragedy as one affecting a few individuals. Blum’s Iago wreaks his damage on the body politic and its spirit, as well as on the physical bodies and unguarded hearts of the innocent and the gullible. Here, truly, is a message for the moment — at the end, only the villain is left smiling.
Bare Theatre presents Othello, the Moor of Venice Thursday-Friday, Feb. 14-15, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 16, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday Feb. 17, at 2 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina; and Thursday-Friday, Feb. 21-22, at 8 p.m. at the Holly Springs Cultural Center, 300 W. Ballentine St., Holly Springs, North Carolina. $15 ($7 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). Common Ground Theatre (Feb. 14-17): 919/771-3281. Holly Springs Cultural Center (Feb 21-22): 919/567-4000 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Bare Theatre: http://www.baretheatre.org/ Shakespeare Resources (courtesy the University of Virginia): http://etext.virginia.edu/shakespeare/ [inactive 3/10]. E-Text (also courtesy UVa): http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaOthF.html (1623 First Folio Edition) and http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/MobOthe.html (1866 Globe Edition, edited by William George and William Aldis Wright).