Something to see: Hawaii Shakes’ ‘Othello’

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Disclaimer: From a young age, I have had a great affection for Shakespeare. From grade school trips to Ashland, Oregon’s fantastic annual Shakespeare Festival to reading the Bard’s works out loud in AP English, I’ve always enjoyed losing myself in his plots. I’ve also admired the complexity and intensity of Shakespeare’s characters; the tragedy of the situations they find themselves in; and the baudy humor and quick wit of his dialogues.

Yet, there’s a lot that you don’t get from Shakespeare until you see it performed live, and even in a small, low-tech venue like The ARTS at Marks Garage, the stories shine. “Othello,” one of Shakespeare’s “four great tragedies” and arguably one of the most famous tragedies of all time, opened Friday night for a nine-day run, as part of the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival.

“Othello” tells a classic cautionary tale about the destructive nature of jealousy, intertwined with love, lies, heartbreak and revenge. Othello, a black Moor, has risen to the rank of general in the Venetian army and has, to her prominent father’s dismay, fallen in love with and married the beautiful Desdemona. Othello’s seemingly loyal ensign, Iago, for reasons of his own (jealousy? revenge? spite? just because?), manages to convince the general that his new bride has been unfaithful. Stricken by grief and jealousy, Othello plots revenge against those he believes has wronged him.

Othello is played by jet-setting actor Jason Quinn (simply known as “Q”), who was born and raised on Oahu, but travels regularly to New York.

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Taking on the starring role with adept skill and switches of mood, Quinn captures the many faces of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist, from the boisterous good humor of a man in love to the dark, destructive violence of a man torn apart by jealousy, perceived betrayal and rage. It’s a powerful performance, and one which you’re almost afraid to look away from.

“We’ve been talking about doing this for a couple years,” Quinn said. “This is the first time we finally got everyone together in one place for long enough to work with R. Kevin Garcia Doyle and really pull it off.”

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Small in stature, but not in role, Shawn Forsythe plays the treacherous Iago, who proves with his character that one person really can ruin everything.

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Another cast standout is the notorious ladies’ man, lieutenant Michael Cassio (right), played earnestly by Jeff Brackett. After he loses his general’s favor due to bad decisions and a drunken barroom brawl, he seeks advice from Iago on on how to get back into Othello’s good graces, unaware that Iago is plotting his downfall as well.

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One of the lovely surprises in this version of “Othello” are the musical interludes, wherein the cast breaks into song to emphasize a scene, like this gathering of soldiers in a tavern. Sound designer Peggy Anne Siegmund proves it’s possible to impress with low-tech, yet well-timed, effects and voices.

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Harpist Lacey Perrine Chu really helps to set the mood with her beautiful playing, adding just the right touch of drama, delicate romance and melancholy to several pivotal scenes.

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One of the best and most thought-provoking and original elements of this adaptation of “Othello” is the concept of Desdemona’s “Shadow,” who haunts Othello and is the personification of how he sees his wife. Desdemona is a simple archetype; the tragic character of a pure girl who defied her father’s wishes to marry someone she loved, only to have that person turn on her. Her mostly silent shadow, as dreamed up by assistant director Amanda Stone, however, is far more interesting.

“We call her Desdemona’s shadow, but she’s really Othello’s shadow,” director R. Kevin Garcia Doyle says. “She is a reflection of how he perceives her. We like to think we know what’s in someone else’s heart, but we really don’t. Everybody in this play misjudges each other because they think they know them. Othello misjudges Iago. Iago misjudges his wife. Desdemona goes on loving Othello because she really can’t believe he could think those things of her. The images we have of people are merely shadows of who they really are.”

Interesting side note: The two actresses who play Desdemona and her Shadow, Jaime Bradner and Christine Lamborn, will switch roles every other performance.

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All in all, “Othello” is an intense, well-cast and well-done performance that is definitely worth seeing. It’s also the last play in this year’s Hawaii Shakes Festival, so if you’ve missed the others, don’t miss this one.

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“Othello”
By William Shakespeare
Directed by R. Kevin Garcia Doyle
The ARTS at Marks Garage
Aug. 14-23
Wednesday, Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:30 p.m.
$10-$20 at brownpapertickets.com