Courtney Brown’s one-woman show takes on all characters
Theatrical activity on the Indeavour Stage in Cupids is considerably curtailed this summer. In place of last year’s full-scale productions of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” this year we are offered a staged reading, of “Richard III” (two performances only, August 3 and 4 at 6 p.m.) and a one-woman rendering of “Othello,” as adapted and performed by Courtney Brown.
So, I sallied forth around the bay, for last Friday’s performance of “Othello,” on a warm and still and blessedly bug-free evening, taking in a production that was witnessed by a heartbreakingly small audience: 14 persons in total, including the festival director, this reviewer, his driver-friend, and a child who was far too young to know what was going on. And she may not have been the only one, because it is fair to say that unless you know the play pretty well, you will likely be disoriented on occasion, and sometimes quite at sea during a production in which all the characters are voiced and performed by the single performer.
It opens with villainous Iago, in a bright orange, prison jumpsuit, lying on an upstage, metallic bed, in a schematically rendered prison cell, the boundaries being represented by an asymmetrical tape, from within which the prisoner confides in, complains to, and sometimes harangues the audience. Disgruntled and envious, intense and threatening, soft-voiced Brown plays Iago and the rest of the play’s denizens, generally commandingly planted centre-stage in the middle of his/her cell, offering the audience a litany of imagined outrages and offenses, plots and counterplots: scheming against his rival in Othello’s service (Cassio), scamming and finally murdering the witless dupe, Roderigo, and manipulating the noble but gullible Othello, who is drawn into a vortex of jealousy and murderous rage against his innocent wife.
Voicing and enacting the unseen characters, Brown is even-paced, though sometimes more recitational than dramatic in delivery. From that domineering centre-stage position, Brown is always clear in articulation, if sometimes too level, too undifferentiated as to voice and character to carry off the difficult feat of evoking and creating the multiple figures of Iago and Cassio, Othello and Desdemona. For a female performer, the resonant voice of Othello is particularly challenging.
In performance, repeated gestural mannerisms are adopted to establish the unseen characters, some of which become rather mechanical in effect. In particular, when Brown is speaking as Desdemona, she demurely crosses arms to clutch right shoulder and left side — again, and again, and again. Desdemona can’t speak, it seems, without grasping herself.
And, finally, as the play moves irrevocably to its multi-murderous climax, it is undermined — even rendered ludicrous — by a clever but imprudent idea. In his/her prison cell, Iago is delivered a tray of food by the silent guard. He/she ignores the food, but picks up and slips into his shirt pocket the plated soup spoon with which she is supposed to eat her meal (no knives and forks in prison as potential weapons for dangerous offenders). In the climactic hecatomb, enacted in Iago’s memory, he stabs Roderigo to death, he stabs to death his wife, Emilia. Othello wounds Iago, and then the Moor kills himself — all accomplished with the plated soup spoon, the only lethal spoon in the Shakespeare canon. Far better and far less bathetic to mime stabbing empty-handed than to conjure up a deadly spoon.
Despite reservations expressed above, Courtney Brown’s ambitious project and her whole-hearted and, indeed, intrepid performance is by way of being a tour de force, although a gruelling one for a single performer, who must hold the stage, focused and alone, for a full 90 minutes.
As the programme and the festival director are at pains to point out, this one-actor “Othello” is a work in progress, “in a season in which New World is embracing the process of development.” While the one-woman piece is an intriguing concept, it remains to be seen where the project can be taken from here.
Directed by Alan Dilworth on the neo-Elizabethan Indeavour Stage, Courtney Brown’s “Othello” is scheduled for four more evening runs at 6 p.m., on August 9, 11, 17, 18, together with a 2 p.m. matinee on August 10.
In addition to “Othello” and the two staged readings of “Richard III,” the Indeavour Stage in Cupids will also host a handful of musical and variety shows and puppetry from Andy Jones, together with a single performance at 2 p.m. on August 11 of Jamie Skidmore’s new play about shipwreck and passion, “Song of the Mermaid: A Newfoundland Story.”