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A CurtainUp Review

by David Avery

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee.
---Brabantio, father of Desdemona, to Othello
James Avery and Jim LeFave in
James Avery and Jim LeFave in "Othello"
Photo by Mary Beth DeLucia

The character of Othello has fascinated audiences regularly since the play's inception in 1603. He is a figure of mystery and power who, along with his wife Desdemona, defies social convention. Othello is one of Shakespeare's more straightforward stories, with little side plotting and a relatively small cast of characters.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum's production does the play justice, though it doesn't bring anything new to the telling. This is meat and potatoes Shakespeare.

James Avery's Othello begins the play with a contemptuous sneer at the outraged Brabantio and his charges of witchcraft. He maintains his haughtiness when dealing with all the other chacters except Desdemona.As he begins to doubt her, Avery takes the character into a broad portrayal of looming passion. The later scenes are as loud as the early ones quiet.

Desdemona (Willow Geer) for her part is quite childlike and innocent in this production, a sheltered girl who still lives in a world of ideals. Geer does an admirable job of portraying her youthful idealism, dedication to her husband, and tragic circumstance. Her gentle playfulness can be seen when she sues on behalf the discredited Cassio (Travis Brazil).

Iago (Jim LeFave) steals the show, as this villain often does. LeFave plays him as though he were appealing for the audience's understanding, making us complicit in his actions. We laugh with him as he manipulates the foppish Roderigo (Jeff Wiesen), and listen closely as he unveils his strategy for Othello's downfall. This rapport serves well as he warns Othello "O, beware, my lord, of jealous; It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock the meat if feeds on." We can see how he is speaking to Othello and of himself.

Though her death scene is a bit histrionic, Melora Marshall's plays Emilia well as Iago's worldly and neglected wife. Her conversation with Desdemona about fidelity, marriage, and the price of honor is plainly happening on several levels. She has betrayed Desdemona to win her husband's affections, and probably betrayed his bed to try and get his attention. She is a direct contrast to the innocent Desdemona, who has to ask "Dost thou in conscience think that there be women do abuse their husbands in such gross kind?"

While the costuming is fairly standard, I was pleased to see a more exotic Turkish look creep in (such as turbans and curved swords) when the action moves to Cypress. Another nice costuming touch is in Othello's clothes. He begins the play wearing African-style long shirts in bright colors, in marked contrasted to the mostly dark-garbed players. After Iago poisons his mind with doubt, he too wears nothing but black.

The Theatricum Botanicum itself is the most wonderful thing about the production. It was founded in the 1950s by Will Geer so that he and other blacklisted artists could continue performing. It is one of Los Angeles' only outdoor theaters with its stage is built into the side of a hill, allowing the characters much more versatility in movement. Ellen Geer uses the space marvelously, having characters enter, exit, and interact from all around the theater. It makes for novel theater moments to watch characters flee off into actual woods.

The Theatricum Botanicum can be enjoyed as much for the beautiful Topanga Canyon setting as the play being watched. There are table and chairs for picnicking (cheese, grapes, crackers, and wine are always a good choice) and lovely grounds for pre-play strolling. Topanga Canyon Road is also one of the more pleasant Los Angeles driving experiences.

A caveat: the Theatricum is subject to the vagaries of weather (even in LA), so bring suitable clothing. The seats provided are either wood or stone, so a pillow is also a good idea. Finally, it's first come, first serve seating in both tiers, and people line up roughly 20 minutes before start time.

Overall, the Theatricum's Othello is a solid, though fairly standard piece that is mightily complimented by the theater itself. This production is a great way to introduce someone to the Bard and his plays.

Links to reviews of other productions of Othello:
Othello/Shakespeare (DC)
Othello/Shakespeare (NAATCO)
Othello (Public Theater)

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Ellen Geer
Cast: Andrew Amani (Cassio's Man), James Avery (Othello), Travis Brazil (Cassio), Kate Britton (Lady), Matty Ferraro (Messenger), Willow Geer (Desdemona), William Dennis Hunt (Brabantio, Gratiano), Matthew Jaeger (Cassio's Man), Jim LeFave (Iago), Riley Mapel (Gentleman), Melora Marshall (Emilia, Musician), Zoe Nissman (Lady), Mike Peebler (Duke of Venice, Ludovico), Eugene Roth (Senator, Various Men), Crystal Sershen (Lady, Senator), Seth Sultan (Various Men), Michael Thatcher (Various Men, Musician), Jim Thoms (Senator, Gentleman), Gaven Van Over (Montano), R. J. Victoria (Senator, Various Men), Jeff Wiesen (Roderigo), Jules Wilcox (Bianca)
Costume Design: Elizabeth Huffman
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, 45 minutes (including a 10 minute intermission)
Dates: From 6/5/05 to 9/25/05
Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290
Tickets: Lower Tier $25, Upper Tier $15; Student/Senior/AEA discount available
Reviewed by David Avery on 6/5/05.

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