Othello across the Pacific — “Theatre Gigante”

Oct 20th, 2014 | By | Category: Entertainment, Sights

By John Sanford Friedrich

A certain surrealism makes it possible to be both sparse and dense in the same moment. “My Dear Othello” debuted at UNCG’s dance theater last weekend, an ambitious production by Milwaukie-based Theatre Gigante. Co-created by Slovenian-trained Isabelle Kralj and Mark Anderson, this rather unclassifiable work of “dance-theatre” took on two of the holiest cows of global theatre history at once – Shakespeare and the classical Japanese medieval dramatic forms.

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Many a diehard thespian and for that matter fans of Japanese drama may have been offput by such a reimagining of the classic tragedy. Those with an open mind were pleasantly surprised. The sparseness of the production was evident with the stagecraft itself. A few red platforms elevated each above the one connected to it in a spiral, a solitary island floating separately from the rest. The four mature actors were all present as the lights lifted beneath the foreign sounds of Japanese instruments.

A wordless dance prelude began with a delicate white handkerchief as the central focus. This inanimate object plays an unavoidable role in the tragedy as it was written but became even more outsized with this dance.

The original play is cast for many more than four actor-dancers but the creators skillfully rendered all such characters as distractions from the core drama. Othello, well played by NYC based Michael Stebbins, and his beloved wife Desdemona (Isabelle Kralj herself) recount their courtship and his rise to power as a general despite being a foreigner. “They don’t care for foreigners here, but then again, where does?”

He also explains his reasoning of why he slighted his loyal soldier Iago (convincingly sinister Tom Reed) and gave the honor of second—in-command to the even-tempered Cassio. The small cast was rounded out by the lady’s handmaiden Emilia (UNCG’s new Head of the Department of Dance herself, Janet Lilly).

Shakespeare has enough fans as it is and the plot may be easily found or analyzed to better effect by a full cast as the playwright intended. “Thee” and a few sentences tightened over the architecture of a complicated structure may have found their way into the dialogue but it was essentially a contemporary English. “My Dear Othello” is a stylistic experiment and thus examining its style is more to the point. Just as the minimal set pieces seemed to spiral in toward each other, so did the story.

Breaking temporal order, the murder of Desdemona at the hands of her husband was acted out several times but with ever increasing emotional intensity. The first time Othello smothers her with an imaginary pillow while she is across the stage, their movements synced. At the final murder he is on the bed with her strangling her with his hands, though once again this is not literal or realistic, his hands are still a few feet away from her death-gasping throat.

The “unused” characters, or those not the focus at the moment, did not dart off stage and avoid hearing what had to be said about their fates. Instead they stood with their backs to the scene or held a fixed expression. Stebbins as Othello also held fixed expressions (a frown not unlike the Greek tragic mask itself) and postures (biceps flexed and fists in front of his waist as in martial arts) while when the females spoke they often signified layers of meanings by using certain gestures such as lifting their arms over their head to point toward the other character.

During a particularly heated exchange a drum beat offstage to accentuate or punctuate these hard words, the drum and motions harkening back to the days of overcrowded tearhouses holding traveling minstrels in which not everyone in attendance could hear the words to the fullest. It would take one more deeply conversant in the conventions of classical Japanese theatre to understand or much less criticize the accuracy of these stylistic motions.

For an evening of “dance-theatre” there was precious little dance. Perhaps this is not too surprising since half of the cast comes from the stage tradition rather than that of modern dance itself. This reviewer often chides dance choreographers for relying on the spoken word as a crutch and sign of a lack of inspiration in the work.   Theatre Gigante’s ambition in this piece overcame my habitual skepticism on this point. Re-imagining a work by Shakespeare and ‘appropriating’ the artistic trappings of an alien tradition could set up Theatre Gigante to withering criticism. Instead they brought to a rather high-brow performance willing to push boundaries.

“My Dear Othello” was part of the university’s Performing Arts Series, which will have regular offerings into early 2015. New York City may offer dance and theatre every night of the week, but this is another example of Greensboro being on the artistic map enough to attract world-stage gems.

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