There is so much magic swirling in and around Cumston Hall that you’d think the Theatre at Monmouth was doing “The Tempest” instead of “Othello” and “ Macbeth” as their Shakespeare offerings this summer.
In her seventh year as producing artistic director, Dawn McAndrews dubbed this season one of “power, passion and privilege.” The non-Shakespearean plays being presented this summer are “Three Days of Rain” by Richard Greenberg, “Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti and Moliere’s “The Learned Ladies.”
While there is plenty of power and privilege to go around in each play, passion elevates the casts of “Othello” and “Red Velvet” — both stories of black men with a modicum of power and privilege in white society — to emotional heights that nearly drown theatergoers. There is an energy consistently coming off the Cumston Hall stage this year that has been absent in previous seasons. Magic is the only word to describe what’s happening.
“Othello,” directed by Catherine Weidner, starts the great tragedy focused on reputation, honor, betrayal, loyalty, assumptions and misread signals at the emotional high most productions end on. Othello the Moor is a soldier whose ability to focus intently on a military maneuver proves his downfall when he becomes obsessed with the question of his wife Desdemona’s fidelity.
Iago, the man who believes he rightfully should lead the troops rather than Othello, manipulates the facts and the Moor’s emotions until passionate love turns into violent anger. In a less thoughtful production, it would have been easy to label Iago a racist but Weidner takes away that option by casting black actors as Othello (Wardell Clark) and Iago (Ryan Vincent Anderson). Audiences must dig deeper to find Iago’s motive. Anderson’s portrayal is anchored more in class and an unwritten military command code than skin color.
“Red Velvet,” directed by Jennifer Nelson, tells the story of African-American actor Ira Aldridge, who had a successful career in Europe in the mid-19th century. The title refers to the red velvet the vast majority of the curtains in theaters were made of when Aldridge was acting.
The play, told in a flashback, centers on an imagined event when Aldridge (Ryan Vincent Anderson) takes over the role of Othello from a dying Edmund Kean, the premiere Shakespearean actor of his day, at the Theatre Royal in London’s Covent Garden. The blowback from Aldridge’s passionate performance with the white actress playing Desdemona sends him into exile on the Continent.
Six of the company’s 17 actors perform in both “Othello” and “Red Velvet.” The artful casting allows an actor’s portrayal in one show inform his performance in the other. Theater manager Pierre Laporte’s (Brad Wilson) concern for the impact Aldridge’s performance has on his backers echoes Casio’s famous musing on reputation in “Othello.” When Anderson as Aldridge rehearses his Othello, theatergoers seeing both shows gets a glimpse of the kind of general Iago might have been.
Of the two shows, “Othello” packs the mightiest emotional punch. Leading the cast is Wardell Clark as the Moor, who gives a stunning and very physical performance. Each of Iago’s lies physically pains this Othello as if each one were a blow.
Clark’s passion is so raw the audience can almost taste the bitterness of the betrayal Othello is tricked into believing. When Othello learns that it was Iago — not Desdemona — who was untrue, the anguish spews out of Clark and pins theatergoers to their seats.
Anderson’s Aldridge is a deeply layered actor whose interactions with his costars about how to portray certain sections of the play rings true to the modern rehearsal process. His hurt and inability to understand why critics and backers are outraged by his performance are as palpable as Clark’s passion in his portrayal of Othello.
His Iago always is the smartest guy in the room and his schemings would have been successful except for his wife, Emilia (Maggie Thompson), who is just as shrewd. The actor shows Iago’s wheels always turning even after his deception is uncovered. Anderson’s performances are insightful and evocative.
If only Kelsey Burke was able to give the depth to Desdemona that she gives to Ellen Tree, the actress who played the part to Aldridge’s Othello. Desdemona is Shakespeare’s most unwritten female lead, so Burke has little to work with. The fact that she has absolutely no spark whatsoever with Clark makes it hard for the audience to understand why Desdemona is so eager to please her husband. Her interactions as Ellen Tree with Anderson sizzle.
These two plays, written more than 400 years apart, ask similar questions about assimilation, status, gender, race and passion. To MacAndrew’s credit, the impact of these productions on theatergoers will be searing and long lasting.
“Othello” and “Red Velvet” will be performed in repertoire with “Macbeth,” “The Learned Ladies” and “Three Days of Rain” through Aug. 20. For more information, call 933.9999 or visit theatreatmonmouth.org.