Othello (The Joffrey Ballet): Haters gotta hate

Othello (The Joffrey Ballet): Haters gotta hate

Reviewed by Tom Lawler

The Joffrey Ballet presents OTHELLO. You know the story: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army, gets married to a local girl and sets off a chain reaction of jealously, prejudice and mistrust when one of his subordinate commanders, Iago, starts a whispering campaign that ends very badly for all involved.

Since this is such a familiar and timeless tragedy, it’s proven an ideal story for the choreographer Lars Lubovitch, who adapted this work in 1997 with composer Elliot Goldenthal. Using the Shakespeare work as a common back story that the audience is already familiar with, the esteemed modern choreographer has a free hand to work elliptically and dramatize key moments that worked best visually – and of course, through dance. Some of my favorite scenes from Othello are when you feel like you’re watching a silent film.

Correction: Experiencing the Joffrey’s Othello is like watching The Best Silent Film of All-Time. Imagine an evening out that combines gravity-defying dancing, Wagnerian Sturm und Drang, hot-blooded performances, sumptuous costumes whipping in the wind and larger-than-life sets. There is so much to take in at once, it feels almost decadent. It seems a waste to only have two eyes and two ears to try to absorb it all.

Cinematic is a good word to describe the larger-than-life power of Joffrey’s production – and a big reason  is Goldenthal’s music. The composer is well known for his film scores (Interview With the Vampire, Heat, Public Enemies) and in addition to providing musical accompaniment to the stellar dance sequences, he provides eerie atmosphere to the moments when there is no dancing.

Most strikingly, Othello begins on an ominous, occult note when we see the title character crouched in the dark and then rise and unfurl his large cape. Othello then proceeds to his wedding ceremony taking place in a dark chapel  -- illuminated only by an glowing cross being held by a priest. What an arresting and strange way to open this story! Goldenthal’s musical score pervades underneath this all like an insidious fog.

Othello is portrayed as half man, half “other” – and is well played here by Fabrice Calmels. As they say in the NBA, you can’t teach height, and the statuesque Calmels literally towers over his fellow dancers. This is quite effective for portraying the general’s power and “otherness.” This is all more heartbreaking when we realize that for all of his outward strength, Othello is fatally insecure and distrusting of his new bride.  Calmels effectively shows us these highs and lows of his protagonist and his graceful dancing is all the more impressive for the longer line he must control.

The plum role in Othello, however, goes to Iago – played here to sneering, seething perfection by Matthew Adamczyk. From the moment he first saunters on stage, he see him for what he is: A player hater of the first degree. Yet due to Adamczyk’s strong, physical characterization, we experience each of Iago’s perceived slights as he sees life’s rewards passing him by. He’s a liar and  repeatedly lashes out at his wife, Emilia (Valerie Robin) when she tries to comfort him, yet we still feel his pain in Act II when he tries to cut in to dance with Othello’s new bride and is rejected at every turn.

As you would come to expect in any Joffrey production, the dance sequences in Othello are tremendous. The extended post-wedding banquet dance in Act I involving many of Joffrey’s superb repertory cast  would be hard to top in most productions. Yet, top this they do in Act II, when Lubovitch gives us an extended “Tarantella” – an Italian folk dance that was suspected in its day of having satanic connections. This sequence features many of Joffrey’s talented female dancers and an alluring turn from Anastacia Holden as a Cyprus woman of ill repute.

As sensational as the dancing is, what lingers most this modern, thunderclap of a production are these indelible characters of Othello and Iago. Othello shows us the tremendous power dance has as live theater – and as a medium for visceral, visual storytelling. Stripping away the dialogue doesn’t leave us with less meaning, but conversely, bring us even closer to the essential truth and drama between these two characters. We feel what they feel, because we see ourselves in them.

This is a highly satisfying night of theatre and a wonderful excuse to visit the landmark Auditorium Theatre. You should not delay in making those reservations though, since the Joffrey is retiring Othello from its active repertory after this production is completed with these performances listed below. Don’t be like Iago and hate on this, just consider yourself warned.

Running Time: 2 hours with two intermissions.

At the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress Parkway

Choreographed by Lar Lubovitch

Score by Elliot Goldenthal

Live orchestral accompaniment provided by The Chicago Philharmonic, led by Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck

Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet: Ashley Wheater

Remaining performances: Friday, April 26 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, April 27 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Sunday, April 28 at 2 pm; Thursday, May 2 at 7:30 pm; Friday, May 3 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, May 4 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; and Sunday, May 5 at 2 pm.

Through May 5

Buy tickets at The Joffrey Ballet’s official Box Office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street, as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University Box Office, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers, by telephone at (800) 982-2787, or online at www.ticketmaster.com.

Production photograph courtesy of Cheryl Mann

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