A fellow member of the campus theatre community once asked me why The Varsity always ran such glowing reviews of Hart House Theatre’s drama productions. “You guys love everything Hart House does,” he said derisively. “Do they pay you off or something?” I replied that while I, for one, most certainly do not love everything Hart House puts on-2003’s cringe-worthy production of Judith Thompson’s Lion in the Streets is a prime example-the theatre sets the standard for campus drama by consistently delivering productions that, at the very least, look and sound professional.
Sometimes, like with the current run of Othello, they go one step further. Shakespeare’s great tragedies are often tenuous in the hands of students, especially without a solid guiding force like that provided by David Gardner in the theatre’s last two seasons, but it is not so with this production. Making his directorial debut at Hart House, Jeremy Hutton, who acted in both of Gardner’s productions on this stage, helms the piece with solid, consistent direction and a vision that lends both clarity and spark to a frequently mangled work.
Setting the play in the late 19th century at the height of the colonial English empire rather than the original setting of 16th century Venice under Ottoman rule, Hutton’s Othello plays down the theme of racism inherent in the text and chooses instead to emphasize the voyeuristic aspects. Alex Prichard’s lighting design ingeniously picks up on this idea, mimicking the actions of an old-fashioned camera. Tableaux separated by flashes of blinding light frame the production, creating a series of photographs that immediately capture the attention of the audience. The photographic theme carries throughout the play-soliloquies become snapshots; stills created at the beginning of acts gain meaning as they are replayed in full motion-forming a fascinating way of looking at the classic tale through new eyes.
Paul Templin’s stark set and Sherri Catt’s period costumes add to the stunning design of the production. Built on a foundation of blocks and staircases in shades of black and grey, four tall white pillars form the highlight of the set, effortlessly moved by stagehands between scenes to change the stage space from a ship to an outdoor meeting place to an intimate bedroom. While the costumes may not have been tailored to exactly match the specifications of the late 19th century, they suit the characters beautifully and add much to the show’s visual coherence.
While generally strong, the acting did not always live up to the high standards set by the show’s design. Despite some minor opening-night jitters, Andre Sills delivered a powerful performance in the title role. William Foley made a convincingly serpentine Iago, hissing through each deception with escalating glee. Unfortunately, Sarah Swift was among the show’s weaker links-her Desdemona seemed flighty and confused, and lacked the gravity necessary to give the role depth. Among the supporting cast, Lada Darewych, a familiar face on the Hart House stage, was a standout, completely stealing the final scene in a fiercely emotional performance as Emilia.
At times, Othello’s ambition seemed to outreach its execution-one got the feeling that with a few more years of experience, both cast and crew could have created something brilliant. In the end, though, reaching for the stars and achieving an above-average production is better than not reaching high enough and falling into the throes of mediocrity.