The Devil Made Him Do It

As Desdemona, Lowe comes closest to a traditional interpretation by depicting Othello's slandered wife as a malleable woman who naively sees the best in everyone. Unfortunately, Lowe's performance lacks any lingering traces of the headstrong girl who, before we are introduced to her, risked everything to marry an outsider.

Given the play's title, however, the portrayal of Othello is the key to success. Relinquishing his sword to become a company man who fights the system instead of foes, Othello is stripped of his one-time majesty and succumbs to common jealousy; he doesn't fall from a noble height. Forced to wear this stylistic straitjacket, Hubert nevertheless strikes a tragic chord, as when he listens to a wiretap he assumes confirms his wife's infidelity.

That brief glimpse of human weakness makes this staging all the more frustrating. Without Scottish witches or the ghost of a dead Danish king to influence events, Shakespeare's Othello plays as a tragedy caused by the character flaws of its protagonists. The Othello Project, on the other hand, offers up as mitigating factors voodoo curses and a community more polarized than Romeo and Juliet's Verona. Most tellingly, Othello's penultimate speech, in which he famously says he "lov'd not wisely, but too well," is spoken by another character. So, instead of having confessed his guilt and taken the blame, Othello lies dead at the feet of a would-be Johnnie Cochran who blames the man's actions on society.

Playing the race card with Shakespeare is nothing new. This past fall Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) played Othello as the only white man in an otherwise all-black city for a production in Washington, D.C. And Carley, the award-winning artistic director of Toronto's Walking Shadow Theatre, has tinkered with Shakespeare in the past; he set Troilus and Cressida in Vietnam and As You Like It in Third Reich Germany.

What's perhaps ironic is that Carley's racially dominated version harks back to the Bard's original source material, Cinthio's Hecatommithi. In that version Desdemona delivers the story's moral when she admits, shortly before her murder, that perhaps she shouldn't have married a man of a different race.

While Shakespeare's text doesn't jibe with Carley's viewpoint, the work of his first-rate design team does. Saidah Ben Judah's costumes scream race: Emilia wears a black dress, Desdemona virginal white frocks, the FBI agents black suits and white shirts. The exception is Othello, who is dressed in gray.

Richard Bodington and Juan F. Cejas enhance Carley's fluid stage direction with an easy-to-switch set that features, among other things, a table that turns into a dock. And Bodington's atmospheric lighting evokes the mystique of a bayou, while Carley's sound design, featuring snatches of "Blue Bayou" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," comments on the action.

Unusual in local productions is Florida Shakespeare Theatre's eighteen-member cast, in which only one actor plays two characters. While the majority of the supporting cast recited Shakespeare's blank verse as though it were a foreign language, Stephen G. Anthony spoke his lines as Lodovico with understanding and conviction.

But you need more than a large cast or even classically trained actors to make Othello stir your blood. It takes a heart-rending depiction of the tragedy that awaits anyone whose emotions or baser instincts go unchecked. Anything less isn't the Moor.

The Othello Project.
Written by William Shakespeare; adapted and directed by Rod Carley; with Anthony Hubert, Jeff Miller, Margery Lowe, A.J. Pittis, and Peter Paul De Leo. Through February 21. Florida Shakespeare Theatre, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables, 445-1119.

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