June 28th, 2004

American Players Theatre, 06-26-04, "Othello" and "London Assurance."

On Saturday the 26th, Georgie and I drove over to the American Players’ Theater at Spring Green, one of two trips we will make this summer during their season. We had a ‘double header” of a matinee of “Othello” and evening performance of “London Assurance” by Dion Boucicault, both of which we enjoyed very much.

With James DeVita in the role of Iago, it was a given that every scene he was in would be his, and so it proved. While I don’t necessarily idolize DeVita as some do, I have to confess that his Iago was faultless. With his near-shaven head, worn leather uniform, and drill-sergeant squint, Iago looks every inch both the tough, competent soldier that he is, and the thoroughly bad man that he also is, and DeVita puts this all across. Bryan Hicks did well in the difficult role of Othello, but I would have liked to see more from him. He is very experienced actor, which perhaps was a bit of the problem. He was very careful to speak his lines with an accent, which sets Othello off from the “Venetians” (who all spoke in the unaffected Midwestern voice which is standard for APT) and I think his concentration on not faltering in the vocal characterization damped down the fire we should see in this role: Othello should rage and roar at times, and Hicks approached, but did not reach, the hair-raising power Othello can show. I would have preferred it had he eschewed the accent and let out the stops occasionally instead.

Amy Hutchins was one of the better Desdemonas I have seen; she played the role a bit more emotionally mature and self-possessed, which made her goodness and charity not just a matter of naivety. Tracy Michelle Arnold was an excellent Emilia, and delivered the role’s famous “feminist” speech with a world-weariness that gave it quite a new flavor. Gerard Neugent was very good as Iago’s dupe, Roderigo, and John Phillips as Cassio was everything Iago is not—handsome, open, courteous and unaffected—which serves to focus Iago’s malice.

The production was very spare—stacked platforms, with only a coil of hawser downstage to distinguish Cyprus from Venice—allowing the audience to focus on the vital human interactions. The performance received a very well-deserved ovation.

Excellent as Othello was, the really thrilling revelation of the day was “London Assurance.” As the director’s notes remark, it is surprising that this play is not more performed, except that it comes from a period—England of the 1840’s—that is not generally thought of as a high period for theatre and indeed was dominated by “mindless farces, characterless melodramas, and elaborate spectacles.” Boucicault re-introduced clever characters and cracking witty dialog in this, his first play, which was a rousing success. Boucicault went on to write or produce more than two hundred plays, and brought about a number of innovations that have shaped modern theatre, including the matinee, road companies, flame-proofing of sets, and copyrights for playwrights. As somewhat of a student of theatre history I was astonished I hadn’t heard of him and was fascinated to see what the play would be like. We were not disappointed in the least.

In contrast to the very spare “Othello”, American Players put on what is a very lavish production for them, with the clever scene changes choreographed to country dance music. The costuming was also very lovely with particular fun found in the foppish “fashionable” men’s costumes of the period. (I WANT Dazzle’s black and red socks from the first scene--.) The play’s plot is not particularly exceptional—young heiress is betrothed to an old man in order to preserve family fortunes and discovers she prefers his son—but is done with wonderful wit and clever dialog, and a wry attitude toward common morality and social foibles worthy of Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw. The action gives APT’s veterans plenty of scope to display the subtleties of their craft, with Jonathan Smoots as the aging fop, Sir Harcourt Courtly, and Sarah Day as Lady Gay Spanker, the hunt-mad neighbor who helps Sir Harcourt’s matrimonial plans run off the rails. Excellent supporting performances by Amy Hutchins as the hard-headed heiress Grace Harkaway, Shawn Fagan as the son Charles Courtly, and a bravura performance by Gerard Neugent as the clever but opportunistic and amoral friend, Richard Dazzle. Further, James Ridge provided a skillful cameo as the proto-Jeeves valet, the aptly named Cool. I highly recommend this show if you care for stage comedy at all and can get to American Players while it is running.