Sometimes it feels good to get back to your roots.
Antagonist Productions’ version of William Shakespeare’s “Othello” at Woodland Park felt like a plucky return to the spirit of the Shakespeare-in-the-park concept that has had several incarnations in Lexington over the past thirty years. Part of that tradition is that when one theater group stops producing Shakespeare, another group steps up to fill the void.
This year, Antagonist Productions not only filled a void, but reminded local audiences that no-frills, back-to-basics Shakespeare can be just as artistically nourishing as better-funded shows with perks like, say, playbills. When I looked around at the sight of folks settling in for the evening with their blankets, baskets, and bug spray, I wondered how many would not have been able to attend if the event hadn’t been free, although I did see many folks sliding cash into the donation bucket organizers kept by the front entrance.
After Antagonist Productions founder Ian Scott’s enthusiastic curtain speech, I really did sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. I especially enjoyed discovering young director Drew Davidson, whose military-themed setting and strategically wielded contemporary tweaks, combined with clear diction and compelling character choices by the actors, created an accessible, entertaining, and moving evening of theater.
Whit Whitaker is formidable in the title role of Othello, the general so in love with his new wife, that he brings her to the war front, where his fellow soldiers greatly respect him, except for Iago, who hates him for passing him up for a promotion in favor of the younger and less experienced Cassio. Whitaker radiates strength and command as Othello before Iago’s impish machinations begin to unravel the leader, sending him into a state of dangerous, indeed tragic, deranged jealousy.
Courtney Waltermire Davidson is radiant, graceful, and poised as Desdemona, Othello’s faithful wife whose reputation is soured by Iago’s false implications that she is having an affair with Cassio (spiritedly played by Jordan Strouse).
The production boasts many fine performances, but Tom Phillips portrayal of Iago is officially unforgettable. I have seen “Othello” many times, and Iago is always a delicious role for an actor with a flair for a certain kind of villainy, but Phillips’ rendering of the manipulative revenge-seeker is by far my favorite. His mirthful glee at his own cleverness, the way he includes the audience on his plots, his smirk-faced delivery of some of the play’s best lines, are but a few of the ways Phillips’ performance easily drives the energy of the show.
Davidson adds some contemporary twists to the play, such as a scene when Iago tricks Cassio into getting embarrassingly drunk. The scene plays out like a keg party on a military base and is accompanied by requisite loud music and foolish shenanigans. Davidson also shows equity in casting, by tapping a woman (Stephani Gillham) to play the Duke of Venice.
Kudos to Davidson, Scott, and cast and crew for mounting such a fresh and accessible show.
IF YOU GO
What: Production of the William Shakespeare tragedy by Antagonist Productions
When: July 18; gates open at 8 p.m., show starts at dark
Where: Woodland Park, 601 E. High St.
Tickets: $10 suggested donation at the gate
Note: This production will also be presented at the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, 2590 Richmond St. in Mt. Vernon, July 26-28. Gates open at 8 and showtime is 8:45 p.m. Admission is free.