Italian American Theater

at Lower Links

Frank Melcori, the artistic director of the Italian American Theater, says he wanted to do a silent production of Shakespeare. But his original choice was already being produced, so he settled for Othello, the bard’s complex and tragic study in jealousy.

It is a curious choice, and it isn’t satisfying. For one thing, if you don’t know the original you’re utterly lost. For another, Melcori never provides a reason for the absence of words. The live, original music by Michael Zerang, Don Meckley, and Kent Kessler is often provocative, but it simply can’t carry the show. It is, after all, played like a sound track–incidental music and sounds that suggest a moment rather than tell a story.

A wordless production necessarily flattens the characters and deals only in broad strokes. It shares more with a game of charades than the producers may care to confess. A complicated plot must be simplified. A mass of emotion and poetry that relies on nuance and projection for its power is lost. A different approach (a Kabuki production, or one on roller skates, for instance) must add something–a twist, a new view, another layer–otherwise why do it?

I walked into Lower Links’ star-speckled performance space looking for clues and walked out 45 minutes later still in the dark. The program promised a variety of movement genres, a theater of stylized gesture, and interesting props. It promised transformation.

Instead the production–for the most part–was amateurish. Except for the lamps made from plastic grapes, the stage props were nothing but ordinary. The actors’ movements were often caricatured and undercut the seriousness of the emotion. Sometimes their movements were so out of synch it was embarrassing. I got the impression that most of Melcori’s group simply walked through this production. It became a theater of allusion more than illusion.

Gino de Grazia, who plays the lead role, had potential. He’s possessed of a nice stage presence, and his costume showed off his fine, chiseled physique. But except for a few too obvious and deliberate moments, his dance training was hardly put to use. He also overacted at critical points–when he strangled Desdemona in a rage of jealousy, when he discovered his mistake, and, finally, when he killed himself. There wasn’t an ounce of subtlety to be found in the few minutes it took him to get Othello’s suicide over with.

Melcori does suggest a new direction by casting a woman, Kaja Overstreet, as the crafty and evil Iago, but he stops short of letting her go. Overstreet, whose background includes performance art and the Japanese art of the butoh (a haunting, deathlike dance theater that originated after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were bombed), seemed the most at ease and was the most accomplished at conveying the three-dimensional personality intended by the writer. She was fluid and muscular in turn, using her eyes, her lips even the direction of her toes, to tell us something about what was going on. She moved; everyone else simply followed blocking directions.

Melcori told me after the show that he used Overstreet as Iago because he believes in color- and gender-blind casting. That’s a noble sentiment, but in ignoring gender he may have missed the opportunity to look at the story a little differently. Overstreet never actually played a man in any way, and her androgynous costume further blurred things. (For the record, I attended the show with a friend who was unfamiliar with Othello and who never thought Overstreet was playing a male role.) But the idea of Iago as a woman might have been intriguing.

Silent Othello probably sounded like a good idea. But it is just an experiment without a thesis. Preproduction discussion should have revealed the fallacy–Shakespeare’s strength wasn’t plotting or original story ideas. A silent production robs the greatest prose writer in the English language of his claim to fame–his magnificent way with words.