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A CurtainUp Review

I've been reviewing the work of the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) for several years now (other reviews are linked below), and there's a part of what I've said each time that's beginning to sound like a broken record. NAATCO is the group that employs extremely good Asian actors in productions of Western classics. The idea is to provide these performers, who are rarely cast in major (that is, white) roles in these plays, an opportunity to "strut their stuff."Here's the part I always have to repeat: once the play gets underway, the audience quickly forgets about the "novelty" of the Asian faces, and settles in to watch some exceptionally fine performances.

I suppose I am becoming something of an expert on racially-rearranged Othellos. A couple of years ago, I reviewed a "photo negative" version starring Patrick Stewart in the title role; African Americans played the Italian parts. (Review also linked below.) There, as here, the motivation was to afford access -- Stewart in particular had been pining to play Othello -- and the production itself wasn't trying to make a broader point beyond the casting.  Straight-up, for Othello, does require some means of representing Othello's "otherness," and the solution here is casting a part-Asian, Joshua Spafford, who could easily "pass" for white. (In fact, when I saw the Filipino Mr. Spafford's fine performance in Gorilla Rep's Richard III last summer (see link below), it never occurred to me he was Asian.) It's a strategy that does the trick.

This production is well worth seeing for several reasons. In a period when just about everyone producing Shakespeare seems driven to update, rethink or modernize, it's actually quite refreshing to see a version that mostly withstands the temptation to tinker. This production's constraints also are used to very good advantage, and the result  is enjoyable in no small measure because of the resulting simplicity. Sarah Lambert's dark but functional set design, a bare stage split down the middle with a stylized dome-capped arcade, most effectively (and also simply) lit by Stephen Petrilli, avoids the sort of fussiness that can divert our attention or slow down director Jonathan Bank's cinematic pacing. Casting economies, which strip the stage of the sizable retinues that commonly accompany the main characters in Othello, force us to focus quite squarely on the reactions and interactions of the characters in ways that we might  otherwise neglect. Which brings me, finally, to the acting, which aids that understanding tremendously. 

There seems to be some unwritten rule that in every match-up of an Othello with an Iago, one performance is more satisfying. Here the balance falls heavily in favor of the latter. Although Joshua Spafford is an accomplished classical actor, he never seems fully at home in his Othello. At times he seems too weak, yet when he bellows with rage, he is uncomfortable. His quieter moments, too, lack credibility, and his sense of anguish seems derivative. Joel de la Fuente's Iago, by contrast, exudes an ingratiating charm that laces perfectly with his demonstrably savage evil. A slight Iago physically, his animation as he orchestrates with the skill of a puppetmaster is superb. The image of  the bilious grimace with which he last faces the audience is like an engraving of his astonishing performance. Among the women, both Tina Horii's Desdemona, spoken with an increasingly hollow majesty, and Tess Lina's powerful Emilia, are equally accomplished, and the remainder of the cast is, without exception, very good. 

Othello is not a play, of course, in which one looks for laughs, but the night I saw this production, there were three. Other than the one I referred to above, one was elicited quite on purpose, by Lina's contemporary reading of Emilia's line, "I have a thing for you," as she hands Iago Desdemona's handkerchief. The other was occasioned by the Duke of Venice statement to Brabantio:
If virtue no delighted beauty lack, 
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.
Is that so? 

CurtainUp's review of Ah, Wilderness! 
CurtainUp's review of Long Day's Journey Into Night 
CurtainUp's review of Falsettoland 
CurtainUp's review of Richard III 

by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Jonathan Bank 

With John Roque, Joel de la Fuente, Mel Duane Gionson, Andrew Pang, Joshua Spafford, James Saito, Ariel Estrada, Tina Horii, Joel Carino, Tess Lina and Jennfier Kato 
Set Design: Sarah Lambert 
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli 
Costume Design: Elly van Horne 
Sound Design: Jane Shaw 
Fight Choreographer: Michael G. Chin 
Running time: 3 hours with one intermission  
A production of the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street (Avs. A/B) (718) 623-1672 
Opened February 16, 2000 Closes March 4, 2000 
Reviewed by Les Gutman 2/17/2000 based on a 2/14/2000 performance

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