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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving. — Iago

Robert Cuccioli as Iago and Victoria Mack as Desdemona
How many productions of Othello does one have to see and still not feel the urge to yell out to Desdemona, “You dropped your handkerchief?” It may be exasperating for me, but just think what it is going to mean to the characters in one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. It is to the play’s credit, however, than it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the riveting drama about interracial marriage, power and jealousy. Shakespeare makes it virtually impossible to avoid becoming tenaciously involved as the duplicitous ensign Iago plots against his superior general the Moor Othello, his innocent bride Desdemona, and others as they are catapulted to their doom as the result of a lost and treacherously manipulated handkerchief.

While Othello has been previously presented by The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey (the last time in 2003,) this production under the direction of the STNJ’s Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte achieves a level of dramatic intensity and of character development that makes it one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Othello is played by a terrific Lindsay Smiling, who is making his second appearance with STNJ (he played Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale in 2008.) Striding from the start, his countenance confirms the Moor’s essential stature. Most importantly, he projects clues to the flawed and conflicted man who may be harboring doubts about his marriage to Desdemona. Smiling is not only tall and good-looking but also has the technical proficiency to makes his words resound with authority. It isn’t often that we get to see this blind-sided Moor, a victim of political intrigue as well as epileptic fits, so visibly inflamed by his passion even as he is virtually incapacitated by his political naiveté and personal insecurities.

What is commendable about our Desdemona, as splendidly acted by Victoria Mack, is that there is evidence in her demeanor that this true and loving wife to the Moor is a rather a self-assured young woman, quite able to hold her own under normal circumstances - - - of which there are unfortunately relatively few.

Mack makes Desdemona interesting by not being either demure or delicate but rather spunky by nature. An increasing sense of desperation is visible, however, as she finds herself unable to either comprehend or to defend herself against her husband’s irrational behavior. Her screams, brought about by the barrage of outrages hurled at her, are chilling and heart-breaking. It isn’t that we haven’t seen Mack’s fury unleashed before given her tempestuous performance as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew just last year, but as Desdemona, her screams are not simply of fear but the result of a broken heart.

What a treat to see a whole new range of malevolent colors attached to Iago’s treachery, as applied by Robert Cuccioli. The actor, who has distinguished himself over nine seasons at STNJ in many of the most prominent roles in dramatic literature, is at his malevolent best as the loathsome Iago. He literally oozes with pernicious evil, smirking subtly to us, and with an air of self-satisfaction that attends to his well-calculated deceptions.

Also quite exceptional is the impact made by Jacqueline Antaramian as Iago’s loyal but misguided wife Emilia who is unwittingly made to betray her mistress Desdemona. Susan Maris is also outstanding as the courtesan Bianca, Cassio’s mistress. There is plenty to relish as well in the performances of Matt Bradford Sullivan as the foolish and brainless Roderigo and Jon Baker as the duped, wine-women-and-song loving Cassio.

It is evident that Monte is at the helm of a carefully conceived but also traditional production that carries us along by the sheer force of the portrayals. I was rather pleased to hear the audience responding to the play with gasps of shock and surprise to what we may presume to be a familiar play, one literally filled to the brim with domestic upheaval, political intrigue and splintered passion. There was nothing splintered about designer Bill Clarke’s unit setting that efficiently and atmospherically (with splendid lighting by Steven Rosen) adjusted to the various locations within Venice and Cyprus. Also quite impressive was the predominantly gold and muted gold color pallet used by costume designer Paul H. Canada.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast: Robert Cuccioli (Iago0, Matt Bradford Sullivan (Roderigo), Bill Christ (Brabantio), Lindsay Smiling (Othello), Jon Barker (Michael Cassio), Eric Rolland (Duke of Venice), Patrick Toon (Venetian Senator, Montano), Jay Leibowitz (Lodovico), Victoria Mack (Desdemona), Jacqueline Antaramian (Emilia), Susan Maris (Bianca), David Joseph Regelmann (Venetian Officer/Cypriot soldier/servant in Cyprus), Jordan Laroy (Venetian Officer/Cypriot Soldier).
Scenic Designer: Bill Clarke
Costume Designer: Paul H. Canada
Lighting Designer: Steven Rosen
Sound Designer: Karin Graybash
Running Time: 3 hours 30 minutes including two intermissions
Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey on the Main Stage: F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, located on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, at Lancaster Road, Madison, New Jersey.
(973) 408 – 5600
Tickets ($40.00 - $55.00)
Performances: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
From: 09/07/11
Opening: 09/10/11
Closing: 10/02/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/11/11
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