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National Press! The Wall Street Journal: Suspicious Minds in Common

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Cleveland

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When a drama company puts on two shows in alternating repertory, it's smart for the artistic director to pick a pair of scripts that can be played off one another—though not necessarily in an obvious way. You wouldn't think, for instance, that Shakespeare's “Othello” and Oscar Wilde's “An Ideal Husband” have much of anything in common, but they prove in practice to be mutually illuminating, bearing as they do on the subject of how suspicion can wreak havoc on a marriage. Cleveland's Great Lakes Theater Festival is mounting handsome stagings of both plays in collaboration with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, where the two productions originated this summer, and as I watched them in close succession earlier this week, I was struck by how smoothly they fit together.

Sara M. Bruner*, David Alan Anderson* Othello 2010

Risa Brainin's “Othello” is a modern-dress staging whose reference points are wholly contemporary, all the way from the clamorous action-flick incidental music of Michael Keck to the central-casting performances of the excellent actors: Othello (David Alan Anderson) plays the regular guy gone wrong; Iago (David Anthony Smith), the brash, sarcastic Bill Murray-ish sidekick with a giant chip on his shoulder; Desdemona (Sara M. Bruner), the chirpy innocent who can't believe what's happening to her until it's too late. The results, though unsubtle in the extreme, are also terrifically effective—and not just on their own populist terms, either. This is a blood-and-thunder “Othello” that roars down the track at several hundred miles an hour, and though it's short on poetry, it lacks nothing in the way of thrills and chills.

I made a point of seeing a student-matinee performance of this production, and the high-school kids in the audience were completely on top of the plot. I especially liked their collective gasp of horror when Othello, fooled by Iago into thinking that Desdemona has cuckolded him, snarls that he'll “chop her into messes.” That's entertainment.

Nearly every production of an Oscar Wilde play that I've seen in recent years has been performed on a set that sought to reproduce more or less literally the Vicwardian décor of Wilde's own time. Not so the Great Lakes Theater Festival's version of “An Ideal Husband,” whose simple unit set, designed by Nayna Ramey, consists of a drape, some columns and a half-dozen stage-wide steps, plus enough period chairs to allow the characters to seat themselves as they please. Between the set and Jason Lee Resler's high-society costumes, nothing more is needed to create a look that is at once stylized and stylish.

David Anthony Smith*, Jodi Dominick*, Richard Klautsch*, An Ideal Husband 2010

Sari Ketter, the director, writes in her program note that she conceives of “An Ideal Husband” as a “fairy tale.” To that end she fills her sparsely decorated stage with a ballet-like corps of black-clad butlers at whose seemingly magical behest the other actors come and go, a charming conceit executed with the most delicate of touches. The play itself is a tricky mixture of wit and melodrama in which Sir Robert Chiltern (Richard Klautsch), a British politician of infinite promise, is put through the wringer by a kittenishly unscrupulous woman with a past (Laura Perrotta) who seeks to profit from her knowledge of a secret that could smash up Sir Robert's marriage to an ever-so-proper society lady (Jodi Dominick). The plot is little more than a rope on which Wilde has strung some of his sharpest epigrams (“Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”). Yet it all works, and Ms. Ketter's production is especially effective at melding the play's disparate aspects.

Wilde's brand of sky-high comedy can be hard for American actors to carry off with ease. Some of the cast members speak their lines too emphatically (though not David Anthony Smith, who here changes hats from Iago to the Viscount Goring, Sir Robert's best friend, catching the latter character's fey tone with winning deftness). I wish Ms. Ketter's actors had been lighter on their feet, and that they'd thrown away more of Wilde's one-liners instead of italicizing them. That said, the total effect of this production is both impressive and persuasive. I very much look forward to seeing more of the work of the members of the production team, most of whom were new to me.

A word about the theater in which “Othello” and “An Ideal Husband” are being performed: Built in 1921, the Hanna Theatre was taken over two years ago by the Great Lakes Theater Festival. The original 1,421-seat proscenium-arch house has now been turned into a fully up-to-date 548-seat thrust-stage theater whose performing space and public areas flow together seamlessly, thus encouraging audience members to show up early and use the theater as a meeting place. (They do, too.) Rarely have I seen a a happier marriage of old and new. Read article at The Wall Street Journal

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.

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