Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

An Engrossing and Authentic Othello for the Times

The New Place Players excel at embracing old locations to bring the audience exciting new shows. Othello is their latest production, staged at a restored row house foundry on the East Side. The setting of statuary and stained glass brings an engaging medieval ambiance to the proceeds. This is further enhanced by the trio of musicians on stage. They play period instruments before the show and provided an excellent low-key soundtrack to the proceedings at times.

For those that need a quick refresher on Othello - you might have forgotten since High School Shakespeare - here is a simple synopsis. Othello is a powerful and respect warrior for the Republic of Venice. He is also a black man – a Moor. Ever the outsider, Othello incites anger when he marries Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of a Venice Nobleman. Igao, one of his military attachés, can’t believe Desdemona has chosen a Moor! An attack occurs in Cyprus by the Ottomans and Othello and his army is sent to repel the attack. Othello does not name Iago as his second, another brick in the wall of jealousy which Iago is building. He schemes to drive Othello crazy with jealousy as he paints Desdemona the adulteress WITH Othello’s second in command. Thereby removing both Othello and Casio (the 2nd) with one swoop.

Elliot Johnson as Othello (photo: Carol Rosegg)

As for the show itself, director Makenna Masenheimer has created a topical and relevant story of Othello. Not just by narrowing the focus more towards the Black Moor Othello, but by opening his story to all people that are judged as “the other”. The underling dynamic is emphasized in this production. Neither has the Shakespeare dialog changed but emphasized a bit differently to pull the “otherness” front and center.

It works partially due to the great acting of Elliott Johnson as Othello. He projects strength, both mentally and physically. Most of the characters view Othello as “one of the good ones.” That is, he is a black Moor, but fighting for Venice. He a responsible leader with troops and Venetian rulers both express admiration. 

But when Othello marries Desdemona, her father complains to the city fathers and civic leaders that Othello has shamed his family by bedding and marrying her (in that order). The local authorities tell the Nobleman that Othello is a great general and no punishment is coming, he disowns his daughter who has been soiled by the Moor. Desdemona is played beautifully by Alanah Allen as a happy wife and partner of Othello.

Othello is driven made with jealousy due to the ruthless planning and execution of a plot by Iago, played by talented Coner Andrew Hall. Iago plots to make Othello jealous of his wife and second in command, Cassio. Thereby inflicting pain on Othello and ridding himself of a competitor, Cassio. Cassio is played by Mathew Iannone, with the perfect amount of fealty and respect for Othello.

Othello is presented in the middle of the space, chairs lining each side. The space is reminiscent of a 17th century church. The soaring ceiling and statuary lined walls give an emotional depth to the play. I suggest arriving a little early to get the best seats, all seating is open.

Like every version of Othello, the transformation from adoring husband to a jealous murderous partner is problematic in its swiftness. But this show deals with it a bit differently. After Othello’s crime, his temper is blamed on his blackness. His contemporaries are quick to blame his fiery hot-headedness on his race. Othello’s friends rapidly turn on the Moor. Othello's reputation falls from reverence to disappointment in a moment, disabused of the idea that he and his fellow Venetians are equals.

The one flaw in the show is the portrayal of Iago. Iago is described as “honest Iago” in the dialog and his treachery goes unseen until late in the play. Here, Iago sports the look of an unkempt confederate soldier too bitter to function in society. No one would ever believe Iago is anything but the villain here. It is a relatively minor flaw, since Iago is the villain of the piece, known from very early on – although it does smack you upside the head with the metaphor of a false friend to a black man.

Helen Herbert as Emilia in the foreground. (photo: Carol Rosegg)
In the background: Alanah Allen (Desdemona) and Conor Andrew Hall (Iago) 

Iago's wife, Emilia, is used unwittingly to help the plan. Emilia is played by Helen Herbert and seems to fade into the background only to surprise and impress when she moves to the forefront.

Director Masenheimer builds a steady flow of action and emotions in Othello. She admirably keeps the large cast individualized for the audience to understand. The entire production: acting, costumes, set and lighting combine to form an immersive experience that makes the audience fell more like voyeurs rather than spectators. It is a great show and event and night out.

Playwright: Shakespeare | Director: Makenna Masenheimer | Cast: Elliot Johnson, Alanah Allen, Coner Andrew Hall, Matthew Iannone, Rose Kanj, Nathan Krasner, Helen Herbert

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Pictures From Home: Sharp and Blurred

Pictures From Home is based on the story of Larry Sultan’s book of pictures, 8mm home movie stills and interviews of his parents – a photo memoir also called Pictures from Home. The play is alternately sweet as the son navigates this, and protective as his parents’ respond to the writing. His father is outwardly annoyed that Larry is at their home a lot (4 or 5 days, twice a month), and touched that he spends time with them.

The story transcends the pathos which are obvious here to bring out very real and raw emotions between generations and family. The story is brought to life by three of the best actors around doing great work. Danny Burstein plays son Larry, striving to get to the “truth” of his parents’ story. The parents are played by Nathan Lane and Zoe Wanamaker. They are confused by Larry’s search for deeper meaning in their lives, as they think of themselves as normal, happy, and comfortable in The Valley (San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles).

Danny Burstein, Zoe Wanamaker, and Nathan Lane (Julieta Cervantes)

When Larry was younger, his parents moved themselves and their 3 young boys to Los Angeles from the Brooklyn. Irving Sultan (Lane) goes along with Larry and his photography but doesn’t quite understand his motivation. Larry has his own family in San Francisco, and Irving isn’t sure at all why Larry is not spending time with his own family but would rather explore his parents’ relationship.

Irving has retired, with all the insecurities that come with that decision and a wife that is still working. His wife Jean (Zoe Wanamaker) is a relator, happy working. The retirement just gives Larry more information about his parents and allows Irving more time to be annoyed. Time Irving does take advantage of.

These three actors bring a complicated but typically American story to life. As they play progresses, the story of his parents’ life and cross-country move are examined. It is a life that Larry tries to understand, but it was of a time and motivation that is outside of his experience. He captures the complexity in a series of pictures. Pictures he takes and pictures he found. Most interestingly are the 8 mm home movie images that Larry views over and over again, and he pulls a very different story of them than his parents have. Some of the pictures are still from these movies, blown up.

Danny Burstein (Julieta Cervantes)

What happens? Larry gets closer to his parents, without ever fulling understanding them. Irving and Jean grow even closer to each other. It is bittersweet as the parents age around him. Pictures from Home does not have a lot of action, but the story has many emotions. At the heart of it is love.

During the show, pictures from the real book and home movies are discussed and presented on the back wall. Kudos to 59 Productions which did the Project Design. They do a fantastic job of bringing more depth to Pictures from Home. Experienced Director Bartlett Sher pulls these pieces and actors into harmony that is beautiful, sad, funny and touching.

Go see it if sounds even marginally interesting to you, you will enjoy it very much.

Pictures From Home
Playwright: Sharr White | Director: Bartlett Sher | Cast: Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, 
Zoë Wanamaker