Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Power in Performance

We were at The Guthrie this past weekend for their remarkable production of Othello. We are season subscribers and find that our 7 - 10 plays a year are some of the best use of our entertainment budget. This was no exception.

Every time we sit there before the show starts, I am struck by the sense of anticipation. It is similar to what happens when the opening titles start in a movie. But here, in the theater, we are about to see live actors on stage in front of us. These are actors who are about to have us suspend our sense of belief of the world we are watching and transport us to different places in different times right before our very eyes.

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis does it better than most and as good as any of the best. It is a top-level performance. Always.

So as I sat there on Saturday, the lights very slowly dimming and tense music filling the theater, I sat back ready for the experience. I have never seen a production of Othello. (I have seen many Shakespeare performances at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI, and the Guthrie. This great tragedy has not been one of them.) I found myself anticipating the story, the intensity, the way Shakespeare can always take your emotions and twist them into pretzels as you love every minute of it.

Othello was no exception. Raw energy exuded from the stage. I was being swamped by a tsunami of power and evil. Iago is the quintessential villain, the paradigm of evil, manipulating Othello and all around him for his own ends. The two characters are in this struggle from the opening scene although Othello doesn't know it until it's too late- at the end of the play. I was put through a wringer for the three hours of the production. It never let up and the two actors commanded the stage every moment.

In the second half of the play the two women, Desdemona and Emilia, have their chance, but the two leads are a force of nature onstage. There is little in the way of comic relief. Shakespeare built the play around these strong personas and, in comparison, all but the two women are just part of the scenery. An amazing feat.

All this by a playwright who lived 400 years ago and spoke an "ancient" version of the same language I do, while inventing portions of it as he went along. Issues of love and hate, prejudice and jealousy, power and its consequences never change, however. They are as devastating in the 21st Century as they were in the 17th.

To watch this being enacted in front of me, by real people, is an amazing experience. It is drama at its best. You don't, in a Shakespearean tragedy, get to the end and all will be well as they live happily ever after. Shakespeare lived in a world where the Plague could shut down the city for months on end. He lived in a world many never had the chance to live happily ever after. In his great tragedies he expressed the image of that experience.

 We walked out of the theater truly exhausted by the intensity. At the same time we were better for having been there, wiser in the ways of the world and given a view of the places the human soul can go when taken over by hatred or evil.

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