Shakespeare On Wheels screeched into town recently, carrying a heavy cargo of lies, jealousy, murder and revenge. During its two-day occupation in Havre de Grace, this rowdy group of Italians got drunk, stabbed each other, hurled racist remarks and slapped their wives around. Tragedy ensued -- "Othello, the Moor of Venice," to be precise.
This ambitious young troupe is the eighth incarnation of Shakespeare on Wheels, a project of the Theater Department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
In the tradition of England's pageant wagons, the players travel throughout Maryland and neighboring states with their portable Elizabethan stage mounted on a 40-foot flatbed truck.
The company is better known for its comedic productions. "Othello" seems rather heavy fare for a summer evening's entertainment. Of all the Bard's tragedies, it lacks the texture and subtle psychological nuances of a "Hamlet" or "Macbeth." Still, who can resist a villain as odious as Iago? And what fun to watch the gullible citizens of Venice dance to his tune.
Through a series of innuendoes and outright lies, the envious Iago launches a campaign to destroy his commander Othello, who has just taken the fair Desdemona for his bride.
Iago masterfully manipulates everyone, including his own wife, to convince Othello his bride is unfaithful. The pivotal piece of evidence involves the whereabouts of a lace handkerchief belonging to Desdemona. (It's a flimsy frame to hang a tragedy on, but there you have it.) By Act V, Othello is firmly in the grip of the "green-eyed monster." He murders Desdemona and all of Iago's deceptions are revealed.
The evening began on a promising note as director Sam McCready kicked the action off to a fast start. The momentum never let up from Iago's opening bombast straight through the rambunctious drunk scene.
But in the quiet moments the speedy pace felt rushed. The actors seemed afraid to take time to savor the language, to roll it around and sing it out and let it linger in the air. Particularly John Hansen, who attacked the role of Iago with chilling intensity but little soulfulness.
A summer thunderstorm forced the proceedings indoors, so I missed the chance to see the sets and costumes in their intended outdoor setting. A pity, too, since the Susquehanna would have made a dandy substitute for the canals of Venice. Be that as it may, I refuse to accept the logic of placing 11 costumed actors on a miniature set consisting of three platforms, four columns and a wall. It was a special moment for me when Bianca, the town whore, gaily slapped her glass of ale down on one of the columns, instantly shattering any illusion of scale.
An unusual feature of the production was the presence on stage of a costumed interpreter for the hearing impaired. At first a distraction, she quickly became an asset as she subtly insinuated herself into every scene. I often found myself following her fluid hands and expressive face during long passages of dialogue. Best of all was the way she assumed the role of co-conspirator during Iago's many soliloquies, smirking gleefully as she signed his hateful verses.
Alas, the entire audience was wishing for a crash course in sign language whenever Othello opened his mouth. The telltale sounds of squeaking seats and stifled yawns assured me I wasn't the only one suffering as James Brown-Orleans swallowed his syllables one after another. It's a challenge for any audience to get the meaning behind Shakespeare's puns, poetry, and countless historical and mythological allusions. If they also must strain to hear it, they'll more than likely abandon the effort.
Much has been made of Iago's motivation and the nature of evil as the nugget of morality to be seized in "Othello." But from a woman's point of view, "Othello" is simply a lesson in male vanity. Clearly it's the cuckolding that smarts the Moor, not Desdemona's betrayal of his love. In the murder scene he professes to love her, "yet she must die else betray more men." Talk about male bonding!
Of course it's always fun at the climax of a Shakespearean tragedy to hear that satisfying "thud" as all those bodies hit the stage. And where else can a guy get skewered with a three-foot sword and still manage to spit out a few lines of iambic pentameter?
If you want to brush up your Shakespeare but missed the Havre de Grace performance, you can still catch Shakespeare on Wheels this summer. All of their performances are free. Call (410) 455-2476 for more information.