At the beginning of Shakespeare on Wheels' production of "Othello," the actors introduce themselves to the audience and say a few words about their characters. It's a user-friendly approach to Shakespeare, and it is typical of this highly accessible User-friendliness is especially important since Shakespeare on Wheels, the University of Maryland Baltimore County's traveling theater, performs everywhere from parks to prisons and frequently serves as an introduction to the Bard for children and adults alike.
And, director Sam McCready has made this production even easier to follow by emphasizing the script's similarity to a medieval morality play, a comparison frequently drawn by scholars. In this case, the medieval element first surfaces in costumer Elena Zlotescu's jewel-colored robes. It is reinforced by John C. Hansen's portrayal of scheming Iago as a character whose relentless villainy makes him the personification of the medieval Vice figure. (Actually, Hansen overdoes this; by the end of the play, he is snarling.)
Iago's malevolence can be difficult to explain by any means other than the comparison to the Vice. Othello, however, must elicit some sympathy if modern audiences hope to connect with the play, and James Brown-Orleans makes that connection work.
A native of Ghana, Brown-Orleans speaks with a lilting accent that enhances the spellbinding quality of Shakespeare's verse. Defending his marriage to Desdemona before her enraged father, Othello insists it was the captivating stories of his exploits that won her heart, and Brown-Orleans makes this easy to believe.
Granted, it is still a challenge to figure out why this honest, trusting soul so readily accepts Iago's trumped-up tales of Desdemona's infidelity, but Brown-Orleans' foreignness makes this sticky plot point slightly more credible. European society is alien to him. He even moves differently; when he announces the defeat of the Turks, he breaks out in a little African-style dance of joy.
Subtlety is simply not part of his nature. As a husband, he loves with all his heart; as a soldier, he fights with all his heart, and after Iago introduces him to jealousy, he is jealous with all his heart -- until it is too late, and then, because Brown-Orleans has been so open emotionally, the audience feels his remorse.
Othello is the true innocent here, far more than Desdemona. After all, Desdemona not only had to be strong-minded, but also capable of subtle maneuvering to defy her father, and Bonnie Webster imbues her with the intelligence actresses often lack in the role.
Not all of the performances are this well realized. Daniel Garrett, Joseph Riley and Jeremy Tibbels seem less sure of their craft. But Joy Michener is a warm, vital Emilia, Iago's unfortunate wife, and Alan Aymie is a worthy Cassio, the well-meaning lieutenant who becomes the chief pawn in Iago's plot.
This "Othello" isn't perfect, but it does what a Shakespeare on Wheels' production should do -- it's Easy Viewing, without being Shakespeare Lite. In other words, it's got something to satisfy the beginners in the audience as well as the aficionados.
When: Tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Renfrew Museum and Park, 1010 E. Main St., Waynesboro, Pa.; Shakespeare on Wheels will perform at 23 sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington, through Oct. 4. Call for complete schedule.
Call: (410) 455-2476.