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Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Othello’ Shines Brightly

June 23, 2008

By The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Jun. 23–I might as well just say it: You owe it to yourself to get down to Southmoreland Park to see the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of “Othello.”

And there’s one overriding reason: Damon Gupton’s extraordinary performance in the title role.

Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy, passion and treachery receives a solid production with good actors, sumptuous costumes and an interesting use of music. But Gupton’s electrifying embodiment of the Moor of Venice raises it to unexpected heights. His performance, physically and vocally, is as subtle as it is powerful. It’s one for the books.

Gupton is so persuasive that he and director Sidonie Garrett fix one of the play’s basic credibility problems rooted in Othello’s gullibility. How, a sensible viewer might ask, could such a worldly man accept the flimsiest of evidence implicating his guiltless wife for alleged infidelity?

The answer provided by Gupton is deceptively simple: Othello, an African military hero who has found success defending Renaissance Venice against the Turks, is a man whose emotions are always near the surface, always threatening to break through his carefully constructed public image. It’s an image based on assumptions, but as a black man in white society, he learns too late that those he trusts are guided by suspicion, resentment and hatred of one they have always seen as an outsider.

Bruce Roach delivers an impressive turn as Iago, who plots Othello’s destruction. Iago is witty, smart and impatient of slow thinkers, and he lies through his teeth without batting an eye. Roach captures all of this with admirable clarity and finds humor in Iago’s villainy.

But something curious happens in this play. Iago is clearly the central character early on and sometimes speaks directly to the audience. But as the drama gathers steam, an inversion occurs. Iago recedes from focus, and Othello fills the void.

Ultimately, “Othello” is the portrait of a man condemned to hell on earth. When, in the final minutes, he sees that he has been deceived and has destroyed that which he loved most, his misery is palpable.

Gupton enacts his character’s remarkable arc — from self-confident leader devoted to his wife to a dupe who has been manipulated by an enemy he could not perceive — so authentically that the impact is profound.

Cassandra Schwanke is an appealing Desdemona, playing the role with class and dignity. Schwanke is frequently an arresting presence. And she and Gupton provide the play’s most crucial ingredient. They convince us that the love between Othello and Desdemona is real and deep, even as jealousy drives him mad.

Impressive supporting performances are registered by John Wilson, whose Cassio is a charming dim bulb; Todd Carlton Lanker as a comically inept Roderigo; Jan Rogge as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s devoted servant and companion; Angela Cristantello, who provides sexy comic relief as Bianca without overdoing it; and Robert Gibby Brand, who does exemplary double duty as Brabantio and Lodovico.

Outdoor theater is inherently imperfect. But on Friday night I encountered a show that transcended the invasive racket of traffic and sirens. “Othello” reverberates with issues of race, sexism and domestic violence. It remains sadly relevant to us all.

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The details The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production runs through July 6 at Southmoreland Park, between Oak and Warwick streets north of Cleaver II Boulevard. The festival is free. Donations will be requested. There will be no Monday performances and none on July 4. For information on seating and parking, all 816-531-7728 or go to www.kcshakes.org.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send e-mail to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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