The Moor's Last Sigh
In 1937, former vaudevillian and future Oscar winner Walter Huston played Othello on Broadway. As the curtain fell, Huston was convinced that he had delivered his greatest performance to date. It had been electric, he reckoned, and, more than that, he had provided something different: a subdued Othello. And the critics hated it, every one of them. "[Here] it appears," said Huston in an interview collected in Topy Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy's Actors on Acting, "is my principal fault in playing the Moor: I was not ferocious enough; I did not rave and rant."
Lester Purry, another fine actor, favors a similarly low-key approach in the title role of the Guthrie Theater's Othello, directed by Joe Dowling. Purry's Othello explodes with rage a time or three, but in brief bursts, and he soon returns to a sulk or a simmer. He indulges in no keening histrionics, no wailing sobs accompanied by fists pounding the floor.
At times, this is quite effective, as in Purry's restrained rendering of the general's final speech. Othello, consumed with the sexual jealousy that's been stirred up by the lies of honest Iago (Bill McCallum), has just smothered Desdemona (Cheyenne Casebier) to death in their marriage bed, a crime that's played in an especially copulative manner in this staging. "I have done the state some service, and they know't," he says, and then perhaps sensing that one shouldn't talk shop just after a murder, he adds, "No more of that." No more on the subject, no more of the service, no more, indeed, of anything. The line is spoken with an incongruous casualness, and it's the delicacy of Purry's delivery that allows it to convey everything it can.
Elsewhere, though, Purry's Othello seems too restrained, or perhaps better put, too small. "As Iago's destined gull," Harold Bloom wrote in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, "Othello presented Shakespeare with enormous problems in representation. How are we to believe in the essential heroism, largeness, and loving nature of so catastrophic a protagonist?" In other words, how does the actor show greatness in such an easy sucker, or the magnanimity of someone who changes so quickly from a doting husband to a killer? Purry's performance doesn't quite surmount these challenges. We see the brute and the easy prey for Iago's machinations, but even in the first quarter of the play, we only glimpse his gravitas. As a result, his fall feels more pathetic than tragic.
It's that lack of palpable tragedy that keeps this good staging from being a great one. It's engaging rather than gripping. Not once during its three hours was I fidgety, but neither did I feel the "terror and pity" that high tragedy can inspire. McCallum's Iago, often flashing us a conspiratorial smirk, is more of a prankster than a devil; it's something of a guilty pleasure to watch him con and manipulate Othello or Roderigo (Kris L. Nelson, who provides able but unneeded comic relief) or Cassio (Robert O. Berdahl). But neither in action nor in his soliloquies does he really get your dander up, which makes his ultimate comeuppance feel less than rewarding.
More satisfying is Virginia S. Burke's turn as Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's lady-in-waiting. In the early scenes with her husband, she displays the exhausted subservience of a woman long married to a bastard, which makes it all the more heroic when she finally emerges as the only character strong enough to doom Iago and damn Othello. "O murderous coxcomb!" she says of the latter, an appraisal that, despite Purry's several moments of grace, seems more complete than it ought to be.
Sherry's Basement, like my basement, is a mess. It is not, however, an ugly mess--no mice, no asbestos, no mold-covered copies of Ham Radio Magazine. It even offers some laughs that, in an effort to extend this silly analogy, I'd say are about the size of a vintage stationary bicycle. For instance, late in this world premiere from Theatre Unbound and local playwright Anne Bertram, a bald cop (the funny David Schlosser, who also plays a bald boss, a bald friend, and a couple of hat-wearing coffee-shop patrons) tells logician Jo (Sivie Suckerman) that he "once killed a man with a corkscrew."
"You killed a man who happened to have a corkscrew," she responds, "or you used a corkscrew to kill a man?"
Jo is a peripatetic comp-lit major who winds up in Minneapolis when her car dies. She wanders into a coffee shop, where she meets Sherry (Stacy Poirier), the shop's uncannily intuitive proprietor. With near-perfect accuracy, Sherry can guess her customers' problems based on the drinks they order, which makes Jo both intrigued and skeptical. Bertram has cast the play as a kind of tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle, with Jo as the narrating, rational Watson and Sherry as the brilliant and eccentric stand-in for Sherlock.
The pair stumbles into a case that, though blessed with a certain loopy charm, makes few concessions to standard detective-story desirables such as plausibility, danger, and suspense. It involves a timid customer-service representative (Angela Skinner) who has been coming home from work to find her apartment newly equipped with fancy furnishings that she didn't order. There's a reason, I believe, that mysteries tend to involve darker deeds than the mysterious arrival of expensive curtains, just as there's a reason convincing villains take more than 40 seconds to admit to their crime.
I don't really think that genre conventions were a top priority for Bertram, despite the script's avowed debt to Conan Doyle. But it's hard to say what the top priority was. The script takes far too many detours, including a romantic subplot that shows up late in the game to relieve the play of its remaining momentum. Then again, that corkscrew joke came during the coda, along with a couple of other decent gags. I left with the following thought, which I can neither explain nor disavow: Somewhere in Sherry's Basement is a great mystery comedy/buddy series just waiting to be developed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
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