Ambition, Love, and Terror Clash in Marin
by Susan Dunn
Marin Shakes’ Artistic Director Robert S. Currier introduced his opening night Othello with the proclamation that this production is not just a play but an Event with a capital “E.” And what is that Event?
For the Marin Shakespeare Company and its outreach program to California prisoners since 2003 (shakespeare-for-social-justice), this “Othello Event” brings validation and celebration. After 13 years of delivering acting classes to convicts—offering drama therapy—teaching and performing Shakespeare at Bay area prisons, a graduate of that program has finally taken the Shakespearean stage. And the even greater Event for him is that he is not playing a minor role, but the lead in one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most disturbing tragedies, Othello, the Moor of Venice.
Dameion Brown, a graduate of “Shakespeare at Solano,” a former inmate there, has realized a dream of his youth. From his first entrance as a princely Othello, Dameion owns the stage, delivering a mesmerizing performance that builds to an intense, tragic ending. His delivery of the Moor embodies grace, intelligence and stature. He looks every inch the successful admiral returning from battle. Brown’s emotional truth comes through solidly and surely, building on his personal history and his year of intense preparation.
Dameion Brown’s story fits the Duke of Venice’s warning: “To mourn a mischief that is past and gone / Is the next way to draw new mischief on.” (I.iii. 206-7). The actor’s past includes 23 years behind prison bars. His only previous acting experience on stage has been as Macduff in Macbeth. Onstage as Othello, we feel his courage and conviction in reaching so high after regaining his freedom. His future on stage looks most promising.
Last August, when Dameion left Solano Prison, after studying in the “Shakespeare at Solano” program with Lesley Schisgall Currier, he was invited to Richard III, the first play he had ever seen. Inspired by that production, Brown declared to the Curriers that he wanted the role of Othello in the next season. Although that posed a high risk for the Curriers, he went on to earn the prize through dedicated training, proving that he can work with an experienced, professional cast–and deliver the goods. He has magnetic good looks, a broad range of moods and expression, and an ease of demeanor that belies his short resume. And both physically and verbally, he is a great foil for his nemesis, Iago.
Othello’s malevolent officer , Iago (the witty and mesmerizing Cassidy Brown), admits, “I am not what I am”(I.1, 65). Shakespeare artfully exposes the villain’s Machiavellian machinations. Cassidy Brown bursts with Iago’s wit, energy, and humor. He makes music with every syllable of Iago’s robust and sexual soliloquies. Cassidy Brown’s self-aware Iago cleverly dissects other people’s errors to manipulate them all, step by step, for his own amusement.
Cassidy Brown draws us subtly into the labyrinth of Iago’s devious schemes. And most potently, the interaction between Cassidy’s Iago and Dameion’s Othello rings true to life. Director Currier uses an continually interrupted fencing scene to highlight the intrusions of Othello’s doubts. Iago casts his sly, silky threads and wraps up the hero like a fly in his web.
Othello’s wife Desdemona (the charming Luisa Frasconi) stands out as the visual embodiment of Renaissance beauty and courage. Frasconi’s youthful presentation projects her naiveté when she confronts her new husband. Time and again, we want to pull her away from her ill-advised defense of Cassio (a forceful Jeff Wiesen), the disgraced lieutenant. Like a ”woman-child,” she prattles, so absorbed in her own marital happiness that she fails to mark and interpret Othello’s changing emotional landscape. We can even sympathize with Brabantio, her father (a profound, stirring Steve Price), when he rejects and recoils from his own daughter.
Emilia, Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting, (the able and graceful Elena Wright), makes an effective contrast to the euphoria of her mistress. She is a perky but experienced wife whose marriage to Iago has clearly soured and is now on the razor’s edge. Emilia has learned to get by, using patience, hope and an ironic turn of phrase. Despite strengths elsewhere, Emilia’s scene with Desdemona in the bedroom seems strangely static, like two women on separate trains of thought, missing each others’ biting points about men and about fidelity. Their emotional disconnect undermines our empathy at a crucial point, just before the entrance of an enraged Othello.
Cassio, the supposed lover of Othello’s wife, rises above the mark. Wiesen discovers gold in the role, playing the alcoholic and the dupe with supreme conviction and ease. Wiesen shows us how naively Cassio furthers and elaborates Iago’s deception of the military hero.
The Curriers have plucked a star from their “Shakespeare in Solano” program whose magnetism and personal odyssey enhance his power. They have built a cast and a crew, and a magnificent floating stage-set on a moat, no less, for this watery tragedy of Venus and Cyprus, Muslim and Christian, love and deceit.
Paired with the comedy and conflict of Cassidy Brown’s edgy Iago, and a whole company of wonderful actors and costumes, the result is magnificent: Get Thee to Marin to see this masterfully directed, powerfully acted, and beautifully moated Othello, right now. Do!
“Othello” by William Shakespeare, at Marin Shakespeare Company, Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, San Rafael, California, through Sunday, September 25, 2016. For info: marinshakespeare.org
Director: Robert S. Currier. Producer: Lesley Schisgall Currier. Costume Designer: Abra Berman. Fight Director: Richard Pallaziol. Lighting Designer: David Lam. Properties & Set Decor: Joel Eis. Set Designer: Jackson Currier. Stage Manager: Michael Truman Cavanaugh.
Rodgerigo: Braedyn Youngberg. Iago: Cassidy Brown. Brabantio: Steve Price. Othello: Dameion Brown. Cassio: Jeff Wiesen. Duke: Glenn Havlan. Lodovico: Richard Pallaziol. Senator: Mike Monagle. Desdemona: Luisa Frasconi. Montano: Jackson Currier. Emilia: Elena Wright. Bianca: Regina Morones.