'Othello' on a Harley at Milwaukee Rep
The tragedy Othello is the most urgently humanistic of Shakespeare's great plays—more tightly constructed than Hamlet, more carefully motivated than Macbeth, more urgent if less spaciously tragic than King Lear, but with a resistance to off-center interpretations that serves it well in a stupefying, newly conceived, in-your-face onslaught of a production offered by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
It is great fun.
The incoming audience is greeted by a Harley motorcycle soon to be mounted by a burly, bearded biker and his girlfriend as they rush off to an incessant rock beat. Yet all is not lost for stunned purists. The great dialogue is all there, although the gang-attired cast hurls it around as if it were a half-empty beer can. By often rushing headlong through longer speeches, the dialogue can be hard to follow unless one is familiar with the text. But this production requires speed (perhaps literally). In a hellbent-for-leather production such as this, niceties of diction, while observed, must give way to noisy hurly-burly action with much shouting and plenty of gunfire.
Yet the pace, as well as the entire concept, is surprisingly exhilarating for most of the audience, thanks to the endless creativity of director Mark Clements. The sets are huge and spectacular, often descending onstage or rising from the floor. In one of the best scenes, Othello repairs his bike with spare motorcycle parts and a welding torch.
The cast comes off well, considering the pitfalls of doing Shakespeare in a junkyard underpass setting. As Othello, Lindsay Smiling digs into the subtleties of this classic tale of ungoverned jealousy with a surprisingly controlled sense of impending panic. His fainting scene is very effective. Gerard Neugent's Iago seems more seedy than malevolent, but his introspective scenes have a quiet cruelty. Unfortunately, Mattie Hawkinson's inexperienced Desdemona comes off as a high-school tryout. Much better are the nervy performances of Rep veteran Deborah Staples as Emilia and Melissa Graves as Bianca. Lee Ernst buries himself in the role of Desdemona's angry father Brabantio with his usual expertise, while Reese Madigan is strongly effective as Cassio and Jonathan Wainwright brings a note of pathos to the hapless Roderigo.
The staging of the finale death scene is all the more powerful for the gritty setting and has never been more moving. It seems Shakespeare still has the last word.