O, Iago, the Pity of It
The Caldwell Theatre's current show, Iago, certainly offers the promise of blood-pumping drama. James McLure's play is set backstage during a mid-20th-century production of Shakespeare's Othello and takes its inspiration from the tempestuous real-life relationship between Vivien Leigh and Laurence Oliver and Leigh's adulterous affair with the young Peter Finch. The play intertwines the backstage shenanigans with Shakespeare's tale of jealousy, lust, and revenge, a combination that could make for real dramatic fireworks. Somehow, though, Iago is more fizzle than sizzle. For all the passionate language and dynamic staging, both the production and the play are rather pallid.
In McLure's tale, the greatest British actor of the age, Tony (the barely fictionalized Olivier character), is about to star in a stage production of Othello. His wife, Vivacity (known as Viv), is scheduled to play Desdemona. Viv wants a dashing young Australian actor named Finney to play Iago, but Tony balks, suspecting that Viv has been having a fling with Finney since the three recently toured Australia. But Finney manages to gain the role after a rousing audition, and the three begin rehearsal under the direction of a suave Noel Coward stand-in named Basil.
Tony frets and fumes as Viv and Finney's affections become more and more public, while Basil cautions restraint to all. The backstage love triangle reflects and refracts Shakespeare's on-stage story line: Viv as Desdemona is thoroughly innocent of Othello's accusations of adultery, but off-stage, Viv as Viv is a fireball of desire hurtling toward disaster.
The play makes extensive reference to the real-life personalities. All the characters mention a major English critic named "Kenneth" (as in Kenneth Tynan). Viv fondly reminisces about "that movie" (as in Gone with the Wind), which was her greatest on-screen success. There's a lot of talk about romance, sexual allure, beauty, and artistic brilliance, but the characters aren't given much opportunity to show these qualities. The actual scenes are exceptionally short, cinematic snippets, some of which last only seconds; this style tends to work against any emotional buildup. The script's weaknesses are compounded by ineffective work from the usually competent acting ensemble.
Bob Rogerson has chosen not to deliver an Olivier impersonation; instead, his portrayal of Tony is blunt, forceful, no-nonsense. Lisa Bansavage takes a similar tack, giving Viv a steady, stolid strength and avoiding Leigh's flighty charm. Neil Stewart's Finney is less distinct, a hapless bounder who can't seem to help himself. While these choices are credible, none of the relationships in this supposedly incendiary threesome results in much fun or fire. Dennis Creaghan fares better as Basil, tossing off bons mots with a measured reserve. No one in the cast, however, seems completely at ease.
Director Michael Hall provides some elegantly simple staging, whipping through the multiplicity of short scenes with wit and style. And as usual, he's ably supported by the regular Caldwell design team. Tim Bennett's set emphasizes the play-within-a-play idea, using a velvet curtain that rises to reveal the backstage area of an empty theater, where each scene is played out using a minimum of set pieces and props. Thomas Salzman's lighting abets the impressionistic approach with nuanced, moody shadows and a romantic, starlit backdrop. M. Anthony Reimer's piano score adds elements of mystery, romance, and unease.
While the production elements are clearly in evidence, many emotional beats in key sequences are not. Some scenes feel de rigueur, physically precise but emotionally unfilled. Much of the passion, the heartache, and the desire seem to lie in this production's potential, not its delivery.
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