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Shakespeare With Sets

Wouldn't it be nice to have some pretty scenery to go along with Shakespeare's beautiful words? logo

Keith David and Liev Schreiber in Othello
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Saw Othello at the Public. Once again wondered, as so many of us have, why Shakespeare didn't call the play Othello and Iago--or, more to the point, Iago and Othello. According to William Redfield in Letters from an Actor, his account of appearing in the 1964 Richard Burton Hamlet, Iago is the longest role in the entire Shakespearean canon.

And, to be blunt, it seems that the play should be called Iago and Othello based on the performers who are appearing in Doug Hughes' production at the Public, for Keith David is adequate as the Moor but Liev Schreiber is marvelous as the traitorous troublemaker. After seeing many an Iago chew the scenery, how refreshing to find one who doesn't. But chewing the scenery wouldn't be hard to do with this production. To start with, all Schreiber would have to do for the first couple of scenes would be to crunch on six translucent screens. (That's it: Six screens. You can find more in your average multiplex.) Later, he'd only have to munch on a clothesline with 10 baskets on it and a big umbrella positioned over two chairs. Then a bench and, finally, the bed on which Othello commits his dastardly deed and the red curtain that drops behind it. There isn't even enough scenery here to fill one canteen truck; Mother Courage carried around more stuff around in her wagon. Okay, the Public lost a bundle on On the Town and perhaps more on The Wild Party. And, granted, we're in tough economic times. But would it spoil some vast eternal plan if we could have a Shakespearean production that gave us some sumptuous sets as well as the stirring soliloquies?

I don't mean to come down hard on the Public in particular. No matter where I see Shakespeare--the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Shakespearean Festival--the Bard gets a unit set. One size fits all, even if the stage directions say that the play goes from a street in Venice to a council chamber, a seaport in Cyprus, a castle, its garden, and one hall and three rooms inside the place. Oh, for an Othello where we open in a Venice that looks like Venice, right down to St. Mark's Square, the Ponte Rialto, and a canal or two.

I know it would cost money. But given that Cassio is a character in the show, couldn't Casio have underwritten the Public production? Guess not, for the world's greatest playwright has gotten the world's skimpiest sets. Must it be? A theater saves some money when it mounts Will's work, for he doesn't collect royalties and hasn't for quite some time now. I can really only recall two productions that gave the Bard's plays something more than perfunctory sets. One was the 1973 Sam Waterston-Kathleen Widdoes revival of Much Ado about Nothing, which I actually didn't see at the Winter Garden but only when it was telecast on PBS (it's now available through The other was Wilford Leach's heavenly 1978 production of All's Well That Ends Well at the Delacorte in Central Park. I loved it so much I went five times, and the five different people I took all said the same thing when they saw the set: "It looks like a miniature golf course!" Indeed it did, with little castles full of turrets and an expansive, manicured, green lawn. But as expensive as it looked--at the time, A Chorus Line was still selling out and paying many of the theater's bills--it was still a unit set.

Sure, the play's the thing, and wasn't it fun to see Othello and be reminded that here's where we got such expressions as "Light as air," "Wear my heart on my sleeve," and, of course, "The green-eyed monster." But I wish someday to see a Taming of the Shrew that resembles the current Kiss Me, Kate or a Comedy of Errors as opulent as the upcoming Boys from Syracuse at the Roundabout will hopefully look.

So, please, theater companies: Can't you throw a little money Shakespeare's way when you're planning a play by the Bard? Let us sample your Measure for Measure with a rich Viennese set that includes a Karlsplatz, Josefsplatz, and Heldenplatz. Treat the kids to a Midsummer Night's Dream with a magic forest that looks absolutely magical. Simply play on and lay on Macduffy a splendiferous Scottish set, and we'll all kowtow!


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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