The title of this production, produced with impeccable design sense by the National Asian American Theatre Company, should have been Iago. Certainly, any production of Othello must grapple with the danger that Shakespeare’s greatest villain could overshadow the would-be tragic moor, and this production succumbs to such a danger: Joel de la Fuente’s Iago holds the dark hearts of the audience enthralled, while Joshua Spafford’s Othello starts stiff and descends into buffoonery.
The mission of the National Asian American Theater Co. (NATCO) since its founding in 1989 by Richard Eng and Mia Katigbak has been to “promote and support Asian American actors, directors, designers, and technicians through the performance of European and American classics.” Spafford, of Filipino-Moor descent, visually plays as an outsider in comparison the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, his mediocre performance likewise sets him apart.
In terms of ethnic/racial inversion, the production echoes the photo-negative casting of the 1997-98 Othello production at the Landsburg in Washington, D.C., in which Patrick Stewart played the title character to an otherwise black cast. In such productions, references to Desdemona’s “skin as white as alabaster,” or the Duke’s comment to Desdemona’s father that “your son-in-law is far more fair than black,” can’t help but at least slightly draw the audience out of the action of the play. The effect may be similar to that of seeing Asian Americans preparing for a Bar Mitzvah in NATCO’s critically acclaimed production of Falsettoland. Why create an all-Asian production of a play that is very specifically about a particular ethnic group? Or one that calls attention to ethnic difference? Perhaps the more useful question is: What’s the effect of such a production?
In the case of the scene in which Othello murders Desdemona, the end effect is borderline comical. The beautiful Tina Horii’s touching portrayal of Desdemona resonates a sweet, almost virginal innocence, with an angelic singing voice to match. This effect is further enhanced by her billowy, elegant white gown, a costume piece quite distinct from the colorful, gold-lamé accented pieces donned by the majority of the cast. (Designed by Elly van Horne, these stunning costumes support NATCO’s mission of timelessness while creating a regal and particularly Asian flair.) Though Horii is light-skinned compared to her attendant Emilia (played with vim and vigor by Tess Lina), she is not quite “white as alabaster.” What really upsets the white-dark contrast implicit in Shakespeare’s language, however, is Spafford, who appears (presumably due to bad makeup) as if he’s just acquired a deep orange tan via artificial means.
Overall the actors have an impressive comprehension and control of Shakespeare’s language. Joel de la Fuente plays Iago with unabashed aggression and spite, delivering his lines in a well-timed, violent staccato. Devoid of the feigned warmth or false pity assumed by many an Iago, this Iago is not a baiter, but an icy manipulator who reserves emotional pretense for absolute emergencies. Only when Othello seriously confronts him does he resort to a display of guilt or weakness. Rarely does this Iago smile or pander, making his occasional half-smile or evil laugh all the more powerful. His “put money in thy purse” speech was reminiscent of a geared-up Hannibal Lecter: each time he turned the famous phrase he quickly spat it out with cold, nasal conviction. De la Fuente was at his bitter best when confiding in the audience, the only time Iago can totally let loose and fully enjoy his hate.
Other performances of note include John Roque’s Roderigo, whose sincere naiveté, coupled with his infantile pouting–he has great, pouty lips–make him truly sympathetic, even downright adorable. It takes a great actor to play “stupid” effectively on stage, and Roque pulls it off. Andrew Pang’s Cassio, though overly formal at times, is solid. One of the most honest moments in the play was his response to Iago’s assertion that Desdemona is a fair lady. With warm and understated candor he responds, “She is indeed perfection.” She is indeed, as is Pang’s delivery.
Director Jonathan Bank has done an excellent job in staging this piece, and it’s clear that a true collaboration took place between him and his designers. The lighting (by Stephen Petrilli) is smooth and subtle. The set (by Sarah Lambert) creates a stark, but regal, dual-level playing field that proved quite versatile. The sound (by Jane Shaw) was unimposing, almost subliminal. The fight choreography (by Michael G. Chin), despite a slap that needs work, is sure to grow into something sharp and well-paced as the run continues.
In order for this tragedy to be effective, we must sense at least an undercurrent of the passion that the “lusty” Moor holds for Desdemona. Spafford’s love is–at best–gentle, but never passionate. As a result, his jealousy seems more like that of a grad student experiencing exaggerated stress over a term paper than a man tormented by fierce love or primitive desire. Although Spafford’s training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts may have equipped him with a tool box of technical devices, it seems doubtful that his performance will leave audience members any more connected to his passion that they were upon arrival.