Sunday, April 8, 2012

Heavy Metal Shakespeare with the Rep

Hell-bent for Shakespeare on a Harley

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There's heavy metal pumping into the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre prior to the show. A single shaft of light illuminates a Harley amidst the gritty gleam of an industrially inspired set. Somewhere in the background we're hearing "Welcome to the Jungle." It's kind of a weird contrast against an audience that has come to the theatre dressed--like they're going to the theatre. There everyone is in dress slacks, dinner jackets and fancy dresses and they've walked in on something inspired by factory machinery. Metallica's "Enter Sandman," is blasting through the speakers. Everyone's here to see the Milwaukee Rep stage Mark Clements' vision of Shakespeare. 

 

With metal pumping through the Quadracci, the traditional, "welcome to the theatre, please turn off you cell phones," speech is abandoned in favor of a couple of big guys in biker outfits. The opening of AC/DC's "Shoot To Thrill," begins to play. One of them holds a digital camera and a cell phone. The other carries a baseball bat. No words are spoken but the message is delivered and the mood is set. 

 

The heavy metal that welcomes audiences to Milwaukee Rep's production of Othello bleeds into the scoring of the show. Sound designer Barry G. Funderburg weaves a metal score around the edges of the show that give just enough thunder to keep the thing rumbling all the way through. This is NOT a heavy metal rock opera, though . . . this is Shakespeare to the very core, but there's enough hints to tilt the flavor of the production towards metal. It's not difficult to imagine Robert Plant or Alice Cooper reciting Shakespeare with the sound design being what it is. Here Shakespeare's poetry feels like it belongs on the dust jacket to an old LP. It's a feeling not lost to the cast. Everyone seems to be picking up on the vibe quite well. 

 

With a meticulously thought-out visual style, the show's designers (Sets and costuming: Todd Edward Ivins Lighting Design: Jeff Nellis) play-up on the dangerous element of the atmosphere. Traditional Shakespeare iconography is discarded in favor of denim, black leather and chrome. The mists and muted lighting that Nellis is playing with here feel do a tremendous amount of work here . . . feels kind of like an old rock video in places. It's all quite beautiful. 

 

The contemporary biker iconography is amped-up with heavily modified live Harley Davidsons that shoot around the tiny stage at key moments and live fire. (Flip through the program and sure enough--the City of Milwaukee Fire Department is specifically thanked for their expertise. Very cool. Live fire onstage at the Quadracci . .  .wow . . . Anyway--this is a very visceral kind of danger the bleeds out of the production and animates it all around the edges. It's all so convincing that little less-than-authentic elements end up feeling a bit weak. 

 

The firearms are a good example. . . Lee E. Ernst plays Barbantio--father of Othello's wife Desdemona. We first meet him and he's really angry. Looks like he's an old veteran of more barroom brawls than the mind can safely imagine . . . long, grey hair and a long beard and costuming that makes him look tough as nails. He's walking onstage with a convincing shotgun . . . and he gets angry enough to fire the thing. There's a muzzle flash, but the sound it makes is NOT the sound of a shotgun going off . . . it challenges the illusion every time a firearm is discharged in this production. The only reason that's even significant is the fact that the rest of it is so over-the-top dramatic. The sound of those Harleys should not sound more intense than the gunfire, but it does. 

 

To his credit, Ernst does a pretty good job with the fight choreography here. True, much of it still looks less than convincing, but there's a grace to it that mixes well with all of the rest of the production. And it's really, really refreshing to see Deborah Staples headbutt someone in a particularly aggressive scuffle. THAT'S kind of a refreshing element of this particular production . . . the women in Othello aren't particularly strong in and of themselves . . . being as they are swept up in the action of things. 

 

Shakespeare DOES have some strong female characters, but there isn't a whole lot of strength in these women the way the play out in a traditional production. The cool thing about placing this in biker culture is that the women have a chance to be a bit more assertive. Staples plays Emilia--wife of the villain Iago. She walks the stage with a kind of confidence. She smokes. (Staples affects the voice of a woman her age who smokes a pack a day . . . the amazing thing about that is that she's able to pull it off without losing any of the theatricality or lyricism of the dialogue.) She's a kick-ass biker babe covered in tattoos. She's not calling the shots in her relationship with Iago, but she's very independent in her relations with him around the edges of the action. The scene where she offers her husband Desdemona's scarf is one of the more fascinating scenes in the entire production. 

 

Her husband is played by Gerard Neugent. It's been said before that the drama has been mis-named . . . that Iago is by far a more interesting character who really sits at the center of the drama here. The Rep's current production doesn't do anything to change that. Lindsay Smiling cuts a powerful figure, but Shakespeare hasn't given the character the kind of compelling depth we see in Iago and Neugent is INSPIRED in the role. There's a brilliantly understated sense of deception about him. He's playing the character's villainy with a casual shrug that's really fascinating to watch. There's a lot going on here and I personally think this is Director Mark Clements' best work with the Rep thus far, but a lot of his best work here may have been simply deciding to cast Neugent as Iago.   

 

 

The Milwaukee Rep's production of Othello runs through May 6th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-1761.

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