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Cal Shakes brings ‘Othello’ to 21st century

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California Shakespeare Theater’s “Othello” has a fine ensemble, including: seated (from left) Liz Sklar, Aldo Billingslea and Elizabeth Carter and, standing (from left) James Carpenter and Lance Gardner. (Courtesy Allesandra Mello)

The cast assembles in everyday street clothes, looking like they’ve just arrived for a rehearsal. The stage is mostly bare, with a ring of chairs in the middle. One by one, the actors introduce themselves and the roles they’re about to play.

The new California Shakespeare Theater production of “Othello” isn’t just modern looking. Eric Ting’s staging — his first as the company’s new artistic director — makes a serious bid for contemporary relevance.

This “Othello,” which concludes Cal Shakes’ 25th anniversary season, uses Shakespeare’s tragedy as a touchstone for current events.

Ting doesn’t tamper with the text — the line readings delivered by his 8-member cast are fairly straightforward — but he limns the play with provocative touches.

The actor playing Cassio (Lance Gardner) gives a pre-show monologue that riffs on race, xenophobia, the National Anthem and non-traditional casting. A Q&A session inserted near the play’s end elicited audience comments about diversity, violence and the current election season on opening night.

Ting and set designer Nina Ball, employing a three-quarter thrust stage with limited audience seating onstage, keep the actors in view throughout; when they finish a scene, they sit silently in those chairs as observers. An overhead screen identifies locations and shows gritty closeups of the actors.

Not everything works.

Having the actors occasionally break character to deliver asides — one about the island of Cyprus, where Shakespeare sets much of the action, another on the mechanics of strangulation, as Othello kills Desdemona — proves distracting.

More effective is Ting’s emphasis on Othello’s otherness. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the play’s use of words like black, devil and slavery register with such vehemence and potency.

Those who prefer their Shakespeare in period costumes on lavish sets may have a hard time warming to Ting’s bold choices. But even purists will admire the performances.

Aldo Billingslea is a vital Othello, clearly besotted with Desdemona in the early scenes, explosive as he’s felled.

Liz Sklar is a vivacious Desdemona, although her “Willow” scene lacked a measure of gravitas.

James Carpenter gives an insinuating, magnetic performance as the embittered Iago. Julie Eccles’ gently measured Emilia roars to terrifying life in the last act as her husband’s plot — and her unwitting role in it — comes to light.

Gardner’s trusty Cassio and Matthew Baldiga’s comically duped Rodrigo make strong impressions; Elizabeth Carter and Michael Storm fill out the cast in multiple roles.

This is an uneven “Othello,” but its ensemble work yields substantial rewards.


REVIEW

Othello
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 9
Tickets: $20 to $84
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

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