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Loved not wisely, but too well: (l-r) Merritt Janson and John Douglas Thompson in Othello.

A World of Sighs

By James Yeara


By William Shakespeare, directed by Tony Simotes

Shakespeare & Company, through Aug. 31

With John McCain’s campaign running attack ads juxtaposing Barack Obama and Britney Spears, Shakespeare & Company’s first mainstage production of Othello in the troupe’s 31-year history would seem particularly relevant and topical.

But such relevance and topicality would be slighting the play and the excellence of S&Co’s production. Director Tony Simotes has staged a crisp and engaging Othello, and most of his cast of 11 actors (led by John Douglas Thompson in the title role and Michael Hammond as Iago, Othello’s standard bearer and betrayer) have so thoroughly invested in their characters that S&Co’s Othello would grip an audience regardless of the super- subtle race baiting in the current presidential campaign.

Yoshi Tanokura’s set design is perfect: six white columns stretch the height of the stage in the background while the cyc behind them changes from blue cloudy sky to dusky night, and freestanding candlebras and torches are added depending on the shifting locales and times. Simotes has set his Othello in the 1820s, which allows a Romantic sweep for Gail Brassard’s costume design: richly colored vests, skirts (a marvelous gypsy dance makes great use of a blood-red scarf, which parallels the importance of Desdemona’s handkerchief in the latter half of the play) and gowns (there’s a smart shift from Othello’s soldier’s uniform to gold caftan in the fatal last scene).

It is a world where Gen. Othello is needed by the Venetian senate to lead their army and navy against the invading Turks, a world where a virile outsider could be subtly persuaded to woo the beautiful, eager flower of the Venetian upper crust. It’s a world where a false counselor like Iago can deceive not just Othello, but Desdemona (an auburn-wigged Merritt Janson, who plays pretty well), his own wife, Emilia (Kristin Wold, adding another strong-willed woman to her impressive resume), as well as the callow Roderigo (Ryan Winkles in a performance that plumbs the role’s richness), and the favored Cassio (LeRoy McClain). McClain is underused here, especially given the plot of Othello (McClain is also black and, while there are possibilities in this casting, a richer choice would have been to cast him as Iago) and his talent.

Hammond’s Iago is no obvious villain. He is believable in his “honesty.” His deceptions, his improvisation, his manifold reasons for envy and spite, all underscore that Othello is not simple-minded fool for believing Iago. If Iago doesn’t achieve plausible manipulation that transcends mere Karl Rovian denials and Dick Cheneyesque assertions of smirking power, an audience would not be moved by the series of murders that wring Othello to its end, and Hammond is more than up to the task.

He is matched in by Thompson’s Othello. His careful Caribbean pronunciations may initially seem labored and “actorly,” but Othello’s position is perilous: outsider, hired mercenary, violator of the taboos of miscegenation, class, and age. Thompson carefully constructs his Othello, showing the man’s scars and his controlled emotions. This is the first Othello I’ve seen where an audience doesn’t laugh at Desdemona’s sudden recovery from her fatal smothering. The audience rightly seems to hold its breath as Othello “sacrifices” his wife in a harrowing penultimate scene on their bed. Such empathy transcends mere momentary relevance, and that is a sign of a very rare production that will last in memories long after the present.

Posterity Is Just Around the Corner

Of Thee I Sing

By George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music by George and Ira Gershwin, directed and choreographed by Will Pomerantz, conducted by James Bagwell

Fisher Performing Arts Center, Bard College, Aug. 2

The president of the United States is having woman troubles that threaten to become an international scandal; he is about to be impeached; his wife determinedly stands by him. Obviously too far-fetched to pass for reality, Of Thee I Sing proved, when it premiered in 1931, that when satire is crafted with wit, you can get away with a tremendous amount of savagery.

As far as creative kudos go, it’s a dead heat between the book, by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, and the score, by George and Ira Gershwin. The story relentlessly lampoons presidential politics, and still holds up even though real-life politics have long since outstripped this script for absurdity. The score, by George and Ira Gershwin, produced fewer hits than any of their other shows, but it’s a fabulous series of set pieces and songs, with extended sequences that pay deft homage to Gilbert & Sullivan. The show became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize.

While the original production put half a hundred performers on stage, this one had to make do with a cast of 21. But what a cast! Fresh from the Broadway production of Curtains, John Bolton played presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen with a young man’s smile and old-boy chicanery. Amy Justman, from the Company revival, was his relentlessly charming true love, Mary.

After the party convention, Wintergreen and his cronies celebrate with drinks (this is a Prohibition-era show) as they formulate a platform—the inspiration for which is suggested by a chambermaid. After money, what matters most to her is love. So love it shall be. Wintergreen will marry the woman who wins a national beauty contest. With six bathing-suit-clad finalists assembled, the production looks laughably small: “Who Is the Lucky Girl to Be” is meant for a couple dozen contestants and an equal number of men; Bard’s 11 nevertheless did an enthusiastic job with this charm number, moving well and delivering such Ira Gershwin lyrical gems as “Who is the lucky girl to be?/Who is to leave the bourgeoisie?”

Director Will Pomerantz also choreographed the production, giving his dancers not only wonderful (and wonderfully funny) steps and tableaux, but also working in a clever array of props. “Hello, Good Morning” had a “How to Succeed” look in its virtuoso use of rolling desks, rubber stamps and staplers.

Small though the Theater Two stage may be, it vacuums up sound as soon as an actor turns or moves upstage. I can’t thank the production enough for doing without the dreaded scourge of amplification, and the style for the most part was presentational enough to ensure intelligibility, but some of the dance numbers left the lyrics very difficult to follow. And we could have used about 30 percent more energy and conviction from the ensemble.

Standouts in the cast were Gretchen Bieber (as Emily Benson) and Chad Harlow (as Sam Jenkins), who performed the specialty dance numbers even as they held down very credible characters. As Wintergreen’s political buddies, Brian Russell, Doug Shapiro, Rich Silverstein, Tom Treadwell and John Doyle not only came across as backroom boys worthy of Fiorello! but also doubled (and sometimes tripled) in other roles. Andy Gale channeled Jack Gilford in a brilliant turn as the befuddled but ever-likeable Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom. As a senator from Massachusetts, Michael Dantuomo cleverly suggested a familiar counterpart. And the best cameo of all was Marcus DeLoach’s operetta-intensive French Ambassador, who stayed just this side of cartoonish while plausibly mining laughs.

Stage productions are by definition evanescent, but Of Thee I Sing seems to come along at propitious moments. When it premiered, Herbert Hoover was ending an inglorious term; when the show was revived in 1952, Harry Truman had the lowest popularity numbers ever recorded. Until now. Here’s hoping that this production is a harbinger of significant change.

—B.A. Nilsson

Irresistable Farce

A Flea in Her Ear

By Georges Feydeau, translated and adapted by David Ives, directed by John Rando

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through Aug. 10

If Othello (playing down the road at Shakespeare & Company) is, indeed, “a play about a handkerchief” as has been famously said, then A Flea in Her Ear is a play about a smelly letter. Both descriptions are true, and both fail to hint at the richness of either play. If Othello captures Shakespeare at the height of tragedy, A Flea in Her Ear captures Feydeau’s manic joy in diddling in the nether regions of comedy.

Tragedy aims for weeping; comic success is measured by laughs. For David Ives’ self-dubbed “new version” of Georges Feydeau’s farce A Flea in Her Ear at Williamstown Theatre Festival, “convulsed with laughter” is not just a cliché. Ives gives Feydeau’s classic French farce of slamming doors and opening thighs an engrossing English translation, honoring the Gallic sensibilities with a suitable dollop of cheese.

A Flea in Her Ear is set “one day in June” in the ornately bourgeoisie drawing room of Monsieur Chandebise’s home, and in the garish “Frisky Puss Hotel that evening.” Alexander Dodge’s perfect blue-themed Belle Époque set gets applause as soon as the curtain opens. Director John Rando has his cast of 14 tuned to perfect timing, and their actions honed to physical perfection. Feydeau’s men and women come and go through the drawing room and hotel (which also got applause when the curtain opened for Act II), with a rapidity, energy, and hilarity that can be quite breathtaking.

The plot is very simple: Victor Chandebise’s (Mark Harelik) manservant Etienne (Jeremy Beck) suspects his comely wife, the French maid Antoinette (Heidi Niedermeyer), of infedility; she is trying to conceal her trysts with Victor’s nephew Camille Chandebise (a peerless Carson Elrod).

Randy Dr. Finache has come to the drawing room to help Victor with his sudden inability to “stand to” on the connubial parade grounds. The betrothed Lucienne (Mia Barron, stunningly beautiful and funny) has come to the drawing room to pay a visit to her good friend, Raymonde Chandebise (the also stunning and funny Kathryn Meisle), who confesses her despair over Victor’s lack of performance, her fears that he is having an affair, and her desire for Victor’s business partner, Roman Tournel (Tom Hewitt). The pair decide to test Victor’s faithfulness by having Lucienne write an anonymous but properly amorous letter (spritzed with “Pink Pink” perfume) setting up an evening assignation with Victor at the Frisky Puss Hotel.

Tournel and Victor enter the drawing room to prepare a policy for Lucienne’s betrothed, Don Carlos (David Pittu). Victor gets the letter, and the trio debate who the anonymous woman is. The jealous Don Carlos recognizes his betrothed’s handwriting, pulls out his very, very large six-shooter, and the chase out of the drawing room and into the Frisky Puss Hotel is on.

And that’s just the plot for Act 1. Witty, visually and aurally astounding, and quickly paced, A Flea in Her Ear is full of comic misprisions, physical lazzi (in addition to possessing the finest timing in the Berkshires, the cast is very limber), quick changes, door slamming, and laughs to please all but the comicallychallenged.

—James Yeara


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