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Theatre Review: Othello at the Segal Centre, running until this Sunday

Posted by David / November 27, 2013

OthelloAh, opening night at the Segal Centre! You old predictable friend! There's always your familiar faces from Montreal's proud but pocket-sized theatre community, including those rivals/pals from the other side of the city (those veteran Centaurians). There's also media coverage, of course, and a smattering of Segal insiders--staff members, board members and Yiddish Theatre contributors. Some neighbourhood folks, too. It's a time for all the theatre's communities to see what the it's been cooking up, to network with those fellow thespians, and to nibble on post-show bite-sized tuna sandwiches, garlicky guac and unfortunate bits of kosher pastry.

I used to manage front of house at the Segal, so the ritual is more intimate to me than most. Coming home to it, even as a reviewer, offers a sitcom-y déjà-vu quality, though I'm glad to notice it's really grown over the years.

Indeed, I have been to the Segal as Sam Malone was to Cheers--everyone knows my name, nearly. I've got the stories about Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre's days of yore; old legends of former directors throwing chairs, blowing gaskets, getting tanked. I could tell you about the time I dislocated my knee working at the 2nd Yiddish Festival, when I was still an usher, or recount the more obscure bits of insider lore--including Ush, the Silver Fox, the Revolve, the Nutcracker Xmas, and a certain Yiddish theatre fanatic's attempted tussle with a soundman. Strolling through all those memorial doodads is a rather vivifying romp.

But during all my time at the Segal, they didn't put on a single Shakespeare play. Othello marks Shakespeare's first return to the Segal's main stage since the Bronfman days--the 2004-05 season, with The Tempest, to be precise--and it's a welcome one. Stripped down and cut to a snappy two-and-a-half-hour running time (including intermission), it is a reminder of how far the Centre has come over these transformative years.

With local noted indie company Scapegoat Carnivale at the helm and Alison Darcy directing, this production was quite solidly performed. Sean Arbuckle as Iago was a real villainous delight, while the always-great Julie Tamiko Manning did a commendable job ensuring his conclusive downfall. Meanwhile, the many Scapegoat regulars on board, including Daniel Brochu as valiant Cassio and Marcel Jeannin as a delightfully doltish Roderigo, assuredly hammered home something that had never quite occurred to me about Othello: how very campy this tragedy can seem.
Admittedly not a Shakespeare buff, it had been too long since I last acquainted myself with the great, proud and foolish Othello. The play's socially charged subject matter, that of a man of colour marrying a prim white lass and the treachery that may attract, has ensured Othello evokes a kind of deeply tragic aura that may have us believe it belongs among the great Shakespearian plays. But seeing it this time around, I'll admit it's dawned on me that Othello is populated with too many dull-witted souls to really live up to its reputation.

It's all impending doom, of course, and this Segal/Scapegoat production carries its deathly foreshadow to fruition nicely. For instance, as Iago's manipulations come to their climax, ingenious water works gush down the slanted stage like oozing blood around Othello strangling his beloved Desdemona. But instead of sniffling at the shocking tragedy of it, like others around me did, I found myself happy for the blood.

All throughout, I found myself ghoulishly amused but also largely unimpressed by the play's simpleton characters. Desdemona seemed too pathologically enamored, even with regard to her love's short fuse, while her man just seemed a gullible, overly verbose fool with a hair-trigger temper. Iago's got them and everyone else utterly, almost unbelievably hustled; only Iago's wife seems to clue in, though only when it's too late, conveniently. Basically, they're all so dim, ensnared cluelessly in Iago's clichéd web of deceit, that you're glad to see them dying, even as that long wind of final crimson iambs rages out.

Maybe it's the text cut down too short, but I'm betting it's just the play itself. Women at the mercy of men, reputations on a pedestal, a moor's blood running hot, and a bigot with a silver tongue--I get it, you know, but its so campy, somehow. The Segal and Scapegoat do a respectable job here, but Othello makes it a little too easy to picture peasants and inbred royals watching. If anything, it would have been nice to see this production feed on the text's failings and really embrace its gaudy heavy-handedness. Gladly, though, it gives us Iago to loathe and love loathing; what Arbuckle brings to that devilish part is plenty for any theatregoer to revel in. It got me smiling, anyhow. And for your pro-grade dose of Shakespeare this fall, it will do quite well.
As for moi, I'm hoping there'll be plenty more opening nights, plenty more late-night kosher deserts. Peter Hinton will be reimagining the Seagull on its main stage in the new year, for instance. I can already glimpse the gauche spinsters barreling in on the post-show sweets with a Ziploc or two. I look forward to it all.

Othello runs at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts through Sunday, December 1.



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