I love our “storefront theater community” in Chicago. They are the intimate spaces where audience can bind with performer and feel as if they are the “fly on the wall” that we hear people talk about. The Gift Theatre, that lovely little space in Jefferson Park has been around for over a dozen years, bringing us “great stories with honesty and simplicity” and I applaud them for the gifts they have brought to this neighborhood. They have taken on a new challenge in their first ever Shakespeare production, a valiant effort indeed, for a 50 seat theater that has a narrow stage and very little room for a set.
While their production of “Othello” is powerful, I found it to be lacking in the telling of the story, as the actors are not allowing the audience to hear the words that Shakespeare wrote. This is a 50 seat theater. One where the audience is only three rows deep (a distance of 12 feet from stage to back row) and yet, there were times that we could not understand, or even hear the actors. Part of what makes Shakespeare’s work the classics they are, is in fact, the words. It’s a pity that director Jonathan Berry did not explain this to his cast.
The staging on the small stage at The Gift is always a challenge, but Berry handles this with a unique set (Dan Stratton) of panels that created different scenes. It is not a glamor set, but in fact a practical one, that allows for the story telling over the visual effects. They have taken this tragedy to modern times with modern day dress and style. The use of I-phones makes one see that early. We also have many flashlights instead of torches. “Othello” is a look at prejudice, betrayal, love thwarted, and revenge. “Othello” is a Moor ( a person of color) and interestingly he is played by Kareem Bandealy, a Pakistani, instead of a Black actor. During some of the battle scenes, instead of Cyprus, it felt as if we might have been in the Afghan battles of today.
For those who do not know the story, Othello has married Desdemona (the lovely Brittany Burch ,who needs to project and enunciate better), causing upheaval amongst the upper crust. Cassio (Jay Worthington), second in command to Othello ,, and Iago (deftly handled by Michael Patrick Thornton), third in command are trying to gain better position over this ‘outsider”. It is Iago, always plotting who takes a position to ruin Othello in the eyes of the people, so that he can move up. Roderigo (Gabriel Franken) is in love with Desdemona and will do anything to gain her favor. A trap is set where Desdemona’s handkerchief (a gift from Othello) is placed in Cassio’s chambers and then found, thus Othello will believe that his honor has been betrayed. In the end, as in all tragedies, there are many deaths that should not have taken place and all of the characters have suffered great loss.
It is a well acted production with the exception of the hearing of the words. The action is solid, the lighting (Sarah Hughey) and sound (Christian Gero) and costumes(Stephanie Luggish) as well as Mel Gill’s props all add to the overall appearance of the production, that proves a small budget show can be effective. The fight choreography (John Tovar) was unique and as I said earlier, this being an intimate space, one almost feels that we are a part of the action. This production is two hours and forty minutes (there is an intermission) and as played, never feels overly long. Again, the major problem with this otherwise solid production is the limited space they work in and the fact that some of the actors failed to project to the last row.
“Othello” will continue at The Gift Theatre located at 4802 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Jefferson Park) through August 24th with performances as follows:
Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 2:20 p.m.
Tickets are $20-$35 and can be purchased by calling 773-283-7071 or online at www.thegifttheatre.org
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Othello”