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A CurtainUp Review

Put out the light, and then put out the light. — Othello
Othello with a dash of Verdi and traditional Jewish Moroccan songs? After staging The Merchant of Venice and Nabucco earlier this season, David Serero returns to the Center for Jewish History with Shakespeare's classic tragedy Othello to complete his triptych of Sephardi-infused works. Serero, who directs and performs the titular character, adds traditional Jewish Moroccan songs and snippets from Verdi's opera Otello. The result is a rich bouillabaisse of dramatic harmony served up in just one hour.

The Paris-born Serero hails from a Moroccan Jewish heritage and absorbed Moroccan culture right from his mother's milk. He pares down the story to its bare bones, omits some minor characters (no Brabantio), and trims away any superfluous speeches. Some may carp that his version is too abbreviated. But, say what you will, Serero limns the major events of the play. What's more, his mash-up of Shakespeare and Verdi, with the overlay of Jewish Moroccan songs, will keep you leaning in to the beloved myth. One moment you are listening to Verdi's spiritually-wrenching aria "Dio mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali" (translated to English "God, you could have thrown every evil at me"), the next to Shakespeare's profoundly-moving "put out the light" speech, and a beat later to the swell of Moroccan traditional rhythms. A lovely marriage of language, music, and song.

The familiar tragic tale is an exploration of otherness, jealousy, innocence, and love gone wrong. Though Serero doesn't fully plumb each theme here, he manages to boil down the tragedy to its essential ingredients and create a piece that has an authentic flavor of its own.

The play's success owes much to Serero's virtuosic singing. He's a baritone with international opera credits. Although supported by a competent cast—Elena Barone/Desdemona, Christopher Romero Wilson/Iago, Ian Cooper/Cassio, Amanda Vilanova/Emilia, Aaron Hernandez/Roderigo and Duke of Venice, Serero is the real standout here.

However, neither Serero or the ensemble ever overreach themselves. No scenery chewing or putting on airs. There's a communal feel that even has a few topical references inserted into the dialogue to tether it (wink, wink) to present-day New York.

The stage itself is bare, save for a few strategic props: the necessary military accoutrements, a lantern for Desdemona's death scene, and a table that suggests, in turns, a storm-tossed ship, a banquet table, and a bed. This Othello doesn't try to visually dazzle you—but it does sing with conviction and flair.

While Shakespeare's language and Verdi's score and arias anchor the performance, it's the traditional Jewish Moroccan songs that drench this Othello with fresh vitality. The two musicians on stage— — Shawn Chang (the piano) and Geoff Thomas (darbuka)— demonstrate remarkable versatility as they perform selections from Verdi ‘s Otello and serve up Jewish Moroccan airs.

This production brought to mind that famous Shakespeare quote from another play that nails down why actors exist and tread the boards: "They are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time." Indeed, Serero joins the cadre of other actors who have recently performed Othello sans "blackface." And, not only does his Othello point up that he is in the know, but that our social complexion has changed as well to meet sensitive contemporary issues.

Though bite-sized, this Othello has harmonic strengths. It rightly sidesteps the racial issue and underscores the love story between Othello and Desdemona. And Verdi's surging arias and the traditional Jewish Moroccan songs add new texture to Shakespeare's text. It all adds up to a tasty dish of home-made couscous served with wine. Too bad the run is too short for more people to catch it.

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Othello by William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by David Serero in a Moroccan style featuring Judeo-Arabic songs and Othello's Verdi score and aria
Additional music by David Serero
Produced by David Serero with the American Sephardi Federation
Cast: David Serero (Othello), Elena Barone (Desdemona), Christopher Romero Wilson (Iago), Ian Cooper(Cassio), Amanda Vilanova (Emilia), Aaron Hernandez (Roderigo and Duke of Venice), Shawn Chang (piano), Geoff Thomas (darbuka).
Technician: Jonathan Lamm
Center for Jewish History, at 15 W. 16th Street
From 6/16/16; opening 6/23/16; closing 6/30/16.
Remaining performances: June 26 at 8 pm; June 28 at 8 pm; and June 30 at 4 pm.
Running time: one hour with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 6/23/16

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