Pittsburgh Public Theater taking on Shakespeare's 'Othello'
Ted Pappas has wanted to direct “Othello” since he was a teen.
“It's one of those plays you read in high school,” says the producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater.
“We read ‘Julius Caesar,' ‘Romeo and Juliet' and ‘Othello,' ” says Pappas, who attended Andrean High School, a Catholic school in northwest Indiana. “For some reason, ‘Othello' stuck with me. I always have a copy with me. But I have never had the chance to direct it until now.”
A lifetime of living with the play didn't exempt Pappas from doing his homework before rehearsals began.
“I worked for six months. I edited it. I studied different versions and read a lot of books and essays with recommended cuts,” Pappas says.
With 3,560 lines, “Othello” is one of William Shakespeare's longest plays, only 464 fewer than the playwright's longest work, “Hamlet.”
“I typed up a new script with a running time closer to 2 hours and 40 minutes. It's a pretty darned good cut because … it lets me stage it briskly. Scenes tumble without stop like an avalanche.”
Even those who have never seen it performed know a little bit about the plot and its characters: Othello, a Moor and an immigrant to the Republic of Venice, is an experienced general and a newlywed deeply in love with his wife, Desdemona.
But jealousy and ambition within the ranks of his soldiers lead those under his command to destabilize the general by convincing him that his wife is unfaithful.
“It's very much about envy, unbridled passion and controlling chaos,” Pappas says. “Othello is, literally, a man who controls chaos. He is the peacekeeper and brings order to chaos. Desdemona brought peace to his own chaos.”
The tragedy reverberates with themes of whom to trust and issues of pride and prejudice, Pappas says.
“It's not about magic, witches or anything mythological. It's very much about real people,” he says. “It's almost a domestic tragedy. You really feel what happens to these people. It's a play that makes the audience want to leap out of their seats and interfere with plots and inform the actors about what's happening so they can circumvent (events).”
Pappas has moved the setting of this production ahead in time to mid-19th century Venice and Cyprus, sometime before the regions and city-states united in 1861 into the nation we now know as Italy.
He did that to solve the practical problem of moving the play into a more modern world, while keeping it in the timeframe that would allow Venice to still be an independent city-state.
It was also an aesthetic choice: “The truth is, it's a period with really beautiful military costumes … and I didn't want the women in hoopskirts,” he says. “It has enough of the resonance of the past and more of a silhouette of the modern world, and it's still an ‘Italian' play.”
To play Othello, Pappas welcomed back Teagle F. Bougere, who last season performed the solo role in “An Iliad.”
Playing opposite him as Iago is Jeremy Kushnier, who is best known for his Broadway performances in musicals that include “Jersey Boys,” “Rent,” “Footloose” and ”Jesus Christ Superstar.” It will be Kushnier's first role in a Shakespeare play.
“I wanted two actors of equal stature, charisma and power,” Pappas says.
Actors who star in musicals have the stamina and the ability to handle the words and voices of Shakespeare's text, Pappas says.
Returning to play Desdemona is Amanda Leigh Cobb, who was last seen at the Public as Sibyl in “Private Lives.”
They are backed up by a huge cast of actors who include Edward James Hyland, formerly in “Electra” and “Hurry's Friendly Service”; Paul Terzenbach, who performed in “Good People”; and Michael MacCauley, seen here last season in “Noises Off”; as well as area performers who include Daniel Krell, Larry John Meyers, David Whalen and Robin Abramson.
In all, 18 actors appear in the production.
Even though the number of cast members raises production costs, Pappas prefers not to double up on the roles an actor plays.
“We're planning to sell a lot of tickets,” Pappas says.
Another Shakespeare play?
Shakespeare fans hoping to see performances of all his works may have to add another play to their lists.
Earler this month, Ryan Boyd and James Pennebaker, two researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, published results of their study in the Association for Psychological Science's journal Psychological Science that lead them to believe that Shakespeare authored a play called “Double Falsehood.”
Set in Andalusia, it's a dark drama about two brothers, one a seducer of women and one who is more virtuous.
Using computer software to analyze 33 plays by Shakespeare, nine by Elizabethan playwright John Fletcher and 12 by Lewis Theobald, they created style profiles of each author based on word usage, phrase patterns and other traits.
“Honestly, I was surprised to see such a strong signal for Shakespeare showing through in the results,” Boyd said in a news story posted on the association's website. “Going into the research without any real background knowledge, I had just kind of assumed that it was going to be a pretty cut-and-dry case of a fake Shakespeare play, which would have been really interesting in and of itself.”
Although not part of the established canon of Shakespeare's plays, “Double Falsehood” is far from a lost or previously unknown work. Since 2010, it has been included in the “Arden Shakespeare Complete Works.”
In 1727, London playwright and theater producer Lewis Theobald staged a production of “Double Falsehood” at the Drury Lane Theater. Theobald said he based the drama on three original texts of Shakespeare's “Cardenio” that he claimed to own. Theobald's copies of “Cardenio,” another of Shakespeare's fabled lost works, supposedly perished in a mysterious fire.
Those wishing to cross this new addition off their Shakespeare bucket list are in luck.
Letter of Marque Theater Company, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, nonprofit, multidisciplinary collective of artists, will offer performances at 8 p.m. May 14 to 16 at the South Oxford Space, 138 S. Oxford St., Brooklyn.