Review: Lab Theater's minimalist 'Othello' a fascinating experiment in Shakespeare

'Othello,' a stripped-down adaptation of the Shakespeare work, will run Oct. 12-28. Tickets are $20 for adults, $12 for children. Use discount code 'Desdemona' for a $5 discount. The Laboratory Theater of Florida is located at 1634 Woodford Avenue in downtown Fort Myers. For more information or to purchase tickets, go online to laboratorytheaterflorida.com or call (239) 218-0481.

Photo courtesy the Laboratory Theater of Florida

"Othello," a stripped-down adaptation of the Shakespeare work, will run Oct. 12-28. Tickets are $20 for adults, $12 for children. Use discount code "Desdemona" for a $5 discount. The Laboratory Theater of Florida is located at 1634 Woodford Avenue in downtown Fort Myers. For more information or to purchase tickets, go online to laboratorytheaterflorida.com or call (239) 218-0481.

What: Revenge, lust and jealousy play out in Shakespeare's tragedy about the Moor of Venice and disloyal soldier Iago

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27; 2 p.m. matinees on Oct. 21 & 28

Where: Kiwanis Hall, 1634 Woodford Avenue, downtown Fort Myers

Cost: $20

Information: 239-218-0481 or laboratorytheaterflorida.com

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

Note: This review has been updated to reflect that the Lab Theater production of "Othello" uses the original Shakespearean dialogue, not modern text as originally indicated.

William Shakespeare's "Othello" isn't really about the titular Moor of Venice. Lust, greed, lies, deceit and villainy most foul course through the show like sewage through the rotten canals.

And it is about Iago, one of Shakespeare's most magnificent - and dastardly - villains. Timothy Gunderman's towering, brilliant performance as Iago in the Lab Theater's otherwise uneven and off-putting version of "Othello" makes that clear. His rendering of the character offers a singular joy in a show that veers from simple to scintillating and back again.

If you're not familiar with the plot, here's a quick version. The Moor Othello, a black man out of Africa, is a general of Venice sent to defend the island of Cyprus from the invading Turks. He loves Desdemona. Iago schemes for advancement by making it appear that Othello's second-in-command Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. Everybody trusts Iago, even as he lies to everyone.

Lab Theater founder and Shakespeare enthusiast Annette Trossbach continually experiments with the Bard of Avon. She wants to demystify Shakespeare, make his work more accessible and attract audiences put off by "that poetry stuff." The Lab Theater counts productions of "MacBeth" and "Hamlet" among its successes. "Othello" may yet join the list - but it needs major work.

Trossbach takes a scythe to the "Othello" text, trying to prune it into something her amateur cast can handle. "Othello," unfortunately, fights these efforts far more than previous efforts like "Hamlet" and "Romeo & Juliet." What emerges feels as kin to the original in size, shape and depth as a donut to a wedding cake.

Gunderman, by far the brightest spark in the cast, creates indignant fire and a thrilling atmosphere from his Iago's stirring soliloquies. As he stands there, stroking his beard, peering out into the crowd from behind a sly countenance, no doubt contemplating more irksome mischief, you feel that this was how Shakespeare was meant to be played. He is the grand knight, controlling the chessboard from on high; if only the other pieces were even cut from a quarry in the same region, however roughly formed. Sadly, everything and everyone around Iago devolves to mere stage dressing, simply pieces set at random in this tale of revenge wrought large.

With the show stripped down to its barest foundations, there's simply no framework for a story to be built upon. Things happen, yes. Actors move and speak, fight, quarrel, scheme and stab. There's just so little of Shakespeare's language present to give the action complexity and meaning that it becomes difficult to understand why anything happens - much less care about the characters.

Few, if any, of the play's deep themes like love, prejudice, jealousy and the difference between appearance and reality come forth. How can they? In making the show palatable for her cast, Trossbach strip-mines the subtlety right out the door. It is an impossible dilemma - and one I don't have a solution for.

I commend the Lab Theater's determined embrace of amateur actors. I have to wonder though, whether Shakespeare represents a suitable target. If the text faces so much trimming as to be almost unrecognizable in an effort to make "Othello" digestible, perhaps that is a clue to look elsewhere for more realistic challenges. Beyond that, Shakespeare's words require diction, timing and skill in the delivery; little of that was in evidence.

Still, The Bard of Avon represents both project and deeply held passion for Trossbach. Her effort is not entirely wasted. Beyond Gunderman, who's also rehearsing for next month's singularly intense "Extremities," there are bright patches.

Kathleen Taylor offers wit, charm and fire as Emilia. Beth Yazvac brings a saucy lilt to courtesan Bianca. Vladimy Bellefleur gets Othello's rage - but none of his broken humanity; I love his passion, but he has little opportunity to show depth. To be fair, he came to the project just weeks ago after the original actor had to bow out.

Paul Gagnon brings a sturdy, everyman joy to his Montano. Indeed, a pub escapade where Iago sets in motion his plan to destroy Cassio (Wil Harbison), stands as the night's best scene. Along with Gagnon and Gunderman, Harbison uncorks his gift for comedy in this one spot, making the stumbling, drunken, singing soldiers a thing of laugh-out-loud beauty.

Sets, from Trossbach and Ken Bryant, feature an interesting painting technique that changes colors under different lighting conditions. A handful of Cornflower blue and saffron yellow towers feature thin etchings of windows, doorways, arches and walls. From Venice to Cyprus in a flash, with garden, bedroom, docks and more just a turn of light dial away.

Jack Weld offers a subtle custom soundscape (crowds, cheers, nature) to give the show a layer of depth. I'm not positive, but I think Sinead O'Connor's "Lullaby for Cain" plays during intermission; an apt choice considering the carnage to come. Costumes, including two stunning gowns in gold and russet for Desdemona and Emilia, give the show a stylish period feel. I appreciate the effort made to secure suitably authentic knives, swords and other assorted armaments.

"Othello" feels like a fascinating experiment that just didn't work out. Still, the results of misfires can sometimes be as entertaining as perfection. Gunderman offers brilliant, thrilling, exciting proof that the play itself truly belongs to the monstrous Iago. Sets and costumes delight - and Shakespeare, even here, always proves a treat for the ears.

Shakespeare? Or a chocolate shake? Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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