'Othello' More Than a Play For Director, Actors

July 14, 1996
By Geoff Gehman
The Morning Call

James Christy wants to correct 25-year-old mistakes. Michael Tylo wants to "reinvent" himself as a stage actor after two decades of being handicapped by television and film. Aaron Cabell wants to explore the overlooked lessons of a role he once rejected because of racism, spousal abuse and five centuries of audience "baggage."

They are the principals of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's "Othello," a play many believe is a towering tragedy, and some believe is a comedy of grotesque errors. Christy admits he erred quite a bit the last time he directed it, for a summer Shakespeare festival he helped found at Villanova University, where he teaches theater. This time he has a sounder plan, informed by a quarter-century of directing Shakespeare, including a "Merry Wives of Windsor" for the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Christy has set "Othello" in the Napoleonic era, when equality gave way to autocracy. Iago's Napoleon-like rage boils over when Othello offers a military promotion to Cassio, who, sneers Iago, is about as battle-savvy as a spinster. He spins a lethal web exploiting everything from misguided loyalty to a misplaced handkerchief. Like Napoleon, says Christy, Iago "knows the worth of idealism, which is zero."

Christy has a more practical reason for placing a 16th-century play in the 19th century. Napoleonic costumes, he points out, denote military rank far better than Elizabethan duds. And "Othello" is very much a battlefield of military egos.

Ordinarily, Christy identifies with a character or two in every production he supervises. In this one he adores them all, especially Othello, who marries Desdemona for pitying his battle scars but suffocates her because he loves "not wisely but too well." "The language of the thing," Christy adds, "drives me through the roof." To wit: "Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners," and: "O curse of marriage,/That we can call these delicate creatures ours,/And not their appetites!"

No Napoleon as a director, Christy says he prefers steering actors to ruling them. This is come news to Tylo, who as Iago is returning to the stage after a long absence. His last production was an Allentown College "Importance of Being Earnest." His last Shakespeare was an "Othello" 20 years ago, when he was a collegiate Cassio.

For two decades Tylo has specialized in film and television, most notably as debonair anthropologist Quint McCord Chamberlain on "The Guiding Light," to which he recently returned after 12 years. He's followed this route, he claims, to provide for his family: wife Hunter, a star on "The Bold and the Beautiful," and their two boys. He's followed this route even though he's felt increasingly trapped.

"Film and TV people want to conform you with a picture, a box," claims Tylo, who appeared in "Zorro" and "Lonesome Dove" and is an original board member of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. "It's the shot that matters. First impressions are often all you get. And the people you meet! I've seen a lot of 20-year-old wunderkinds who don't know half of what I've forgotten."

Tylo has the fortune and misfortune to make his theatrical comeback as one of theater's greatest manipulators. Iago is a fork-tongued spin doctor, a malevolent pantomimist, a charming snake who makes Othello want to cut his throat and call him "honest, honest." He even distracts by singing, twice.

"He uses everybody's weaknesses and lets them do themselves in," explains Tylo. "You can't force people to act like this." Iago also happens to be exceedingly lucky. "For the lack of a couple of questions asked in a certain place, he could be dead meat," reasons Tylo. "Or, at the end, he could be free."

While Tylo thinks Iago is as evil as Mephistopheles, he likes him the way he likes Eric Hoffer, longshoreman turned philosophical author. "Well, he's been around the block," claims Tylo. "He's been there; he knows how to do that. In order to be a leader of men, he has to know men. If he put as much positive effort as negative effort, he probably would have been general."

"I'm going in feet first," admits Tylo of his Shakespearean return, "kicking and screaming." To which Christy adds: "He's jumped in head over feet." To which Tylo sighs: "God...."

Aaron Cabell admits he resisted playing Shakespeare's Othello, a natural role for a black actor who's classically trained, attracted to tormented characters (he recently directed a college version of Sophocles' "Electra") and has played Othello in the comic fantasy "Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)." He says he avoided Shakespeare's Othello because he was bothered by the play's victimization: of colonials, of women, of blacks.

Cabell refuses to believe Othello falls largely because of his skin color. He can't stand the five-century-old idea "of the noble savage who unravels because of the white man's strings." Textually, he's right. Race ceases to be a factor after Iago tells Barbantio, Desdemona's father, of her surprise marriage to Othello, after he insists "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." From this point on, notes Christy, Iago "appeals to a genuine human frailty that has no color."

What convinced Cabell to audition for "Othello" is a rapport with Christy, who directed him in a play based on Shays' Rebellion, a late 18th-century Massachusetts uprising by debtors against creditors. Before either one was hired for "Othello," Christy and Cabell agreed to stress the title character's Islamic roots. They also concurred that any production should reflect Shakespeare's duet between Othello and Iago.

While Cabell and Christy admire Ian McKellan's florid acting, which director Trevor Nunn framed in a late 1980s "Othello," they think he can be too much. "When Ian McKellan's on stage you don't look at anyone else," claims Cabell. "You want to say to him, sit down! He's great, but sometimes all he gives you are just flags, bells and whistles."

Cabell especially wants to rid "Othello" of racial stereotypes. To prepare for his role, he boned up on colonialism and holy wars, watched films of Arabs, filtered Napoleon into his psyche. Coincidentally, he discovered parallels to his life. Like Desdemona his wife is a white, independent soul who declined to ask her father's permission to marry someone of a different race. The similarity stops there, for Cabell says he and his spouse, a costume designer and teacher, are happier than Othello and Desdemona. After a few years of not meeting, he and his father-in-law, who lives in England, have become diving buddies.

An artistic idealist, Cabell says he was mad at Spike Lee for shattering an interracial romance in the film "Jungle Fever." Instead of the inevitable rupture of hatred he would have chosen a more optimistic ending, an attitude of "What if? Why can't it work?"

What links Cabell with Tylo and Christy is what links every interpreter of familiar Shakespeare: avoiding and embracing famous ghosts. Did they, for example, steal bits, the way Laurence Olivier created a Richard III from the mannerisms of a nasty producer and a cartoon wolf?

"When I was 30 or so I'd go, `Oh no, I'll be pure,' " insists Christy. "I'm so old at this point that I don't really care. Now, I'll crib from anything." Indeed, he found himself unconsciously blocking moves from the first "Othello" he saw, as a freshman at Catholic University in 1959.

Cabell says he remembers little of Olivier in "Othello," the 1965 film. He saw Orson Welles' low-budget, idiosyncratic 1952 screen version just for fun. He avoided Lawrence Fishburne in last year's movie "Othello" because he didn't want to be influenced unduly by a fellow African American.

Instead, Cabell is trying to create a character from scratch, while paying homage to such eminent Othellos as Paul Robeson and Ira Aldridge, an American who wowed them in 19th-century Europe. He does admit he's aiming for Olivier's gymnastic dancing. "You can't just act from the neck down," explains Cabell, who demonstrates by corkscrewing his body parts. "You have to feel everything down to your sinews."

As for Tylo, he's delighted to feed off an entire ensemble, a rare event in the cookie-cutter atmosphere of soap operas. As he points out, gleefully, "I haven't been able to steal this much stuff in years." He's also siphoning a quarter-century of "small-minded" producers and agents. "It's up to them to find out where they are," he insists, "because they're there."

So don't be surprised if you catch a gesture from the TV writer who asked Tylo if "Bobby" De Niro was available for a sitcom. Or the pitiful ignorance of the agent who suggested Tylo perform in an Ibsen play called "Heidi Gobbler."

Reviews on Michael's performance

There are those who argue that Shakespeare should have called his play "Iago." Theatrical history is littered with productions in which Iago overshadows Othello. Not in this one. Michael Tylo is an absolutely delicious villain. Unlike many actors before him, Tylo does not play Iago as a cringing, foxy lowlife. Instead he makes him the very model of modern malevolence. Tylo's Iago is thoroughly evil, without compassion or conscience. He enjoys his treachery, he wallows in his slimy machinations. Tylo is a triumph. But he steals none of Cabell's thunder.
-Morning Call, July 13, 1996

And a third problem, if problem it be, is that Tylo's Iago is so accomplished that he threatens to unbalance the play. With his conspiratorial smiles, his nasty chuckles, and his supremely confident swagger, Tylo inscribes not just a believable villain but a believable man; you feel his anger from the very first scene, and it's never far from the surface even at his most unctuously ingratiating.
-The Philadelphia Inquirer July 13, 1996


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