Tony Brown has long been one of the most versatile and admired of local performers, a man thought to be able to do anything: dance, sing, direct or just astonish us. Who else could be both the hysterical Jacob in La Cage aux Folles and Billy Flynn, the sleazy Mick lawyer in Chicago?
Like all the best black leading men, he had to give his take on William Shakespeare’s Othello some day. We know he’s been thinking about it because he directed Othello for Salt City Center in January 2000, without taking the lead. Navroz Dabu’s painted set tells us the direction this Othello, from the indoor Syracuse Shakespeare Festival (at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater), is going to take. We have a panorama of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., flanked by Venetian motifs at left and right. This is an Othello for the age of Obama.
Make that Obama plus Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. No, the lead is not Obama himself, which would turn the tragedy into a parody, but a man in power when it’s not unusual to find a black man with status. By putting Othello in costumer Barbara Toman’s modern dress, the Moor wears a blue naval uniform, like the other officers, but with more gold braid than the rest. Rather than being an exotic “other,” he’s one of the Venetian players, the top one. Later, when the action switches to the outpost in Cyprus, he wears the same fatigues of other officers. A manipulated jealousy might be gnawing away at him, but this Othello is no savage, not more than any man with sufficient testosterone.
For all the modern dress, American stage English and contemporary music (not credited), this conception of Othello, also deriving from director Dan Stevens’ hands, is solidly historical. In the first two centuries of production, when audiences had little experience with people looking much unlike themselves, Othello was just a dark Venetian officer who had traveled widely. The blackness that Desdemona’s silly father Brabantio (Keith Arlington) screeches about might be little more than that of a Sicilian.
As the reigning assumption became that Othello’s origins were sub-Saharan, it might have provided employment for the likes of Paul Robeson, but it also led to Laurence Olivier’s most wince-making performance, as the jiving, barefoot, feral killer in the 1964 movie. What we have restored here is a tragic hero who, in addition to his initial charm and elegance, is someone we relate to.
Othello’s greatest moments come at the end, with the hero’s wrenching murder of the innocent Desdemona (ivory-skinned Sara Caliva, a beauty worthy of Burne-Jones), followed by his coruscating speech of recognition, “ . . . not wisely but too well.” These are famous lines, like “To be or not to be” or “My kingdom for a horse,” for a good reason. They capture character, morality and insight in a few well-wrought sounds. What Brown does is reinvent their electricity, making you forget that you might have once had to memorize them. If Stevens and Brown were thinking of a moment to mark a peak in a truly admirable career on local stages, they did it.
The name conspicuously absent from this discussion, you may have noticed, is that of the arch-villain Iago, perhaps the most resonant slimeball in literature. That’s because the actor cast in this prime role, with more stage time than the title character, turned up on opening night like a charter member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Rick Signorelli was not on top of his lines, with a stumbling beginning just a few moments into the action. He never stopped dead and called to the wings for a line, but instead covered by treating the missteps like a stylistic stutter, in the manner of the younger Jimmy Stewart or Hugh Grant. Those guys were never malevolent schemers, however, and were more likely to elicit sympathy, not the kind of Iago we’re looking for. Things were most excruciating in the last 15 minutes before the intermission curtain.
Signorelli’s few previous local outings had raised his status. His appearance in the 2006 Wit’s End Players production of Michael Cooney’s madcap British farce Cash on Delivery won him a Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Award. His slow, deliberate walk to the podium to pick it up, sporting a sombrero, signaled an innate sense of theatricality. Audiences attending later performances of Othello may see and hear something vastly different from opening night, however. Under Signorelli’s shiny pate lies a long dark eyebrow, suitable for balefulness.
All the praise for the other players should begin with a note that opening night did not undermine their confidence. In candor, there were even more mishaps. The actor slated to play the officious Venetian Secretary, Corky St. Claire, did not appear, and director Stevens, an understudy for all seasons, filled in for him without a blink. In subsequent performances that role will be taken by Roy vanNorstrand. With these in mind, the Bravery Under Stress Award goes to Gabe Infantino as Roderigo, Iago’s stooge and patsy, who is usually thought of as a fairly thankless role. Infantino, under Stevens’ direction, portrays him as a kind of slacker who may be a dupe but is still dangerous, as when Iago goads him into a duel with Cassio (Jamie Bruno). In keeping with the contemporary mode, the men jettison swords in favor of hand knives. Collin Babcock’s fight coordination makes the combat look lethal.
Director Stevens, known for his George Cukor-esque favoring of smart women, guides Nora O’Dea as the perceptive, articulate Emilia, Iago’s wife, who figures out the game before the boys do. Lynn E. Barbato’s Bianca, Cassio’s strumpet, exudes presence. Even the sailors, Jennifer Byrne and Brianne Walker, are uniformed females. Company stalwart Jamie Bruno gives us a Cassio bleeding for his severed reputation. And two players better known for comic roles, David Vickers as Lodovico and Gerrit Vander Werff Jr. as Montano, make articulate Elizabethan diction sound like second nature.
Tony Brown’s Othello should be the laurel-winning feat of a splendid
career. Maybe during the rest of the upcoming weekend productions, the
rest of the company will help him to achieve what he deserves.
This production runs through Feb. 26. See Times Table for information.