If Shakespeare’s Prospero and Othello ever found time to hang out, they surely would commiserate about the fickleness of fortune. After all, Prospero ruled as Duke of Milan before his brother exiled him to the island that is the setting of “The Tempest.” And the title character in “Othello” was a slave before becoming an esteemed general in the Venetian army. Neither man found life to be smooth sailing.
Just like the lives of those two Shakespearean characters, the current stagings of “The Tempest” and “Othello” — by the Riot Grrrls and WSC Avant Bard, respectively — also have significant ups and downs. Each production has some interesting ideas and fine performances, but each also has its flaws.
“The Tempest” is the more successful. Under the direction of Lise Bruneau, the all-female cast capably conjures up the play’s magical visions and human encounters, doing justice to the language but also letting the comedy fly. (The Riot Grrrls are the all-female arm of Taffety Punk Theatre Company.) Designer Jessica Moretti’s simple set — a trellis and benchlike structures, decked out with fishing nets — adds to the scrappy vibe of a production that relies on abundant role-doubling and quick changes.
The salient flaw here is Isabelle Anderson’s disconcertingly calm Prospero. The strongest passion this marooned Duke seems to feel is a gentle peevishness, an emotion that colors his speech recalling his ouster from Milan, for instance. Such fleeting disgruntlement past, bland serenity returns. The effect is to make the character — dressed in a long, off-white coat and turbanlike headband — quite uninteresting. (Tessa Lew designed the show’s modern-meets-fairy tale attire.)
Fortunately, other portrayals are much more flavorful. In the production’s boldest move, the entertaining Tonya Beckman plays both Ariel and Caliban. She is particularly engaging when channeling Ariel, who comes across as cocky and easily amused but who can turn furious in an instant. Regularly exchanging Ariel’s turquoise-and-gold harem-pants outfit for a black wig and sacklike garb, Beckman also embodies a growly, dimwitted Caliban.
Making Ariel and Caliban essentially two sides of a tidy coin saps some of the wildness from the story, but it’s fun to watch Beckman in different modes. In other notable turns, Esther Williamson deftly signals the still-waters-run-deep menace of Antonio, Prospero’s brother, and Teresa Spencer is endearingly boyish as Ferdinand. Toni Rae Salmi and Amanda Forstrom clown divertingly in their early scenes as Stephano and Trinculo, but as these buffoons get drunker and more spell oppressed, the comedy drags.
If the depiction of Prospero in this “Tempest” proves problematic, so does the realization of the title character in director Tom Prewitt’s “Othello” for WSC Avant Bard. The central challenge in staging “Othello” lies in making the eponymous general’s psychological unraveling seem plausible. Prewitt’s solution is to posit that Othello, a survivor of war and slavery, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which flares up when he travels to what is essentially a war zone in Cyprus.
That interpretation seems both plausible and intriguing, but I was aware of it only after reading the show’s press materials and playbill notes. The premise does not register clearly in the production itself. In his early scenes, Chuck Young’s Othello appears quite psychologically healthy, and in Cyprus, after hearing of the insinuations of Iago (Frank Britton), he becomes increasingly jealous and insecure. But it is almost never obvious that he is being buffeted by PTSD. A voiceover that repeats lines from Othello’s Act I speech about his early-life adventures (including battles and enslavement) does eventually sound, right before Othello’s epileptic fit, but that heavy-handed effect seems too little, too late.
And Young doesn’t do much to suggest an underlying mental-health problem, though if you overlook the issue of plausibility, and disregard a curiously detached speech right before Desdemona’s murder, his character’s progression from authoritative dignity to psychotic suspicion is smooth enough. (Young, who has presence, stumbled in some of his lines on opening night.)
On a more positive note, the production’s central war-related premise may have given rise to the nifty submarine set, complete with navigation charts, cramped walkways and scary alarms. A conceit that has a couple of scenes unfurling in video form, on the submarine’s walls, seems arbitrary and unnecessary, but otherwise the visuals add suspense and atmosphere. (Jos. B. Muscumeci Jr. designed the set and video.)
Britton’s Iago is reliably villainous, although the actor’s delivery sometimes seems rushed or muddy. In a nice touch, this Iago has a juicily flirtatious relationship with his wife, Emilia (a confident Alyssa Sanders), early on.
The finest performance from the modern-dress production comes from Sara Barker, who makes a radiantly spirited Desdemona. Sun King Davis also hits the right notes as the honorable but vulnerable Cassio. And Jay Hardee’s bumbling Roderigo, striving and failing to be Iago’s ultra-cool pal, provides welcome comic relief.
Wren is a freelance writer.
directed by Lise Bruneau for the Riot Grrrls. Assistant director, Kelsey Mesa; lighting design, Brittany Diliberto; composer, Amy Domingues; sound, Sara Jane Schmeltzer; prop design, Emily Lippolis. With Francesca Betancourt, Emma Lou Hébert and Aaryn Kopp. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Tickets: $15. Through Feb. 28 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.taffetypunk.com.
directed by Tom Prewitt for WSC Avant Bard. Costume design, Elizabeth Ennis; assistant costume designer, Ellis Greer; composer, Roc Lee; sound design, Mehdi Raoufi; properties, Kevin Laughon; choreography, Sandra Holloway; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba. With Jennifer Osborn, Manolo Santalla, Joshua Dick and Paul McLane. Tickets: $30-$35 (Saturday matinees are pay-what-you-can). About 2