November 5, 2011

Review: Desdemona, by Toni Morrison, Rokia Traore, Peter Sellars

Desdemona, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello written by Toni Morrison, music by Rokia Traore, and directed by Peter Sellars. I think I went in with expectations that were way too high—I am a huge fan of Toni Morrison (I have quoted/ referenced Beloved more times than I am comfortable admitting), and Othello is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. There were a few moments in the production that really caught me, but overall I didn’t really see the productive value of turning Morrison’s script into an actual staged production.

Desdemona the production is difficult to describe—it’s a hybrid of music, monologue, and text. The entire script is projected behind the actors, and the staging is minimal, with hanging naked lightbulbs and strips of vehemently florescent lights on the floor and some glass bottles surrounding those. (I never really understood the reason behind the staging. The white lights were very jarring and they never really used the glass bottles at all. I understood it even less when they started moving the stuff offstage never the end of the production). 

It begins with a cry from Tina Benko, the actress portraying Desdemona, “My name is Desdemona. The word, Desdemona, means misery. It means ill-fated. It means doomed.” My modernist class last semester really shaped my opinions on this, but I really felt like this articulated relationship was too obvious, too dichotomic. This is a criticism that I can levy at the play in general, I think. I have always valued Morrison’s ability for quiet language, the language that hides the horrors underneath and draws the character out subtly from underneath. In Desdemona, I felt hit over the head with explicit arguments about racism, feminism. E.g. Desdemona: “did you think I was a naïf, a wisp of a girl?” Actually, yes I did. I refer to incident where you tried to bind Othello’s head, he slapped your wrist away, and you whimpered after him as both of you left the scene. Also: when you had premonitions about dying and all you did was tell Emilia to prepare your funeral bed without actually doing anything about it. Sorry but yes, that seemed naïve to me and the first scene with your father more of an anomaly than indication of strength of character overall. And the production never convinced me that Desdemona was more than a wisp of a girl, it never changed my mind; just declaring that one is not naïve does not make it so--the production didn't take the time to explicate this further.

I also felt like the production was trying to be too many things to too many people, and the turn at the end, to humanity, killing (“killing is bad”), racism—it felt like Desdemona was being used more for her larger story of racism, feminism, killing, and not her actual story. It felt in many ways like another silencing of Desdemona, this time with overly large themes and overly-constructed words. Tina Benko—I think she looks great on stage as Desdemona, but she tended to over articulate and pause overdramatically, and that took away a lot of the genuine emotion of the piece. Morrison’s words didn’t really help either, I think. They were very lyrical and beautiful at parts, but didn’t seem real.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. I did like a lot of things about it. Rokia Traore? If you haven’t heard her music, go. Now. It has this quiet earthiness, this silence and life and rhythmic quality to it that really grips the heart. One of the most beautiful scenes in the production is when Desdemona’s and Othello’s mothers meet, and at the end of that scene they create an altar for their children. The lights fall dim, and Traore’s voice rings out unamplified into the audience. It was a heart stopping moment. You think that the music then would be a meditation on losing one’s child and the sadness from that, but instead it turns into this husky, earthy, joyously rhythmic celebration of life and love. So beautiful.

And Toni Morrison’s words. Sometimes (as mentioned above), I did feel like they were overly constructed, but there are parts of the script that are phenomenally beautiful. She uses extremely simple words, and the words are projected behind the actors as poetry, almost, and they are. Othello tells Desdemona, “I loved you mind-deep.” I still think about these words, this phrase. It is so simple and yet has so many layers and meanings to it not just in the diction or syntactical level but also in context of the overall play. And part of the enjoyment that I had from watching this production was seeing the way Morrison so artfully embedded references and language from the original play into the script. The play closes with a line that references Othello’s closing speech, “[remember me] as one who loved not wisely, but too well,” and Morrison takes the stories that Othello briefly talks about in Act 1 Sc 3 and expands upon them in such a way that is truly magical and exciting.

Tina Benko, I think, also does a great job of moving between her roles of Desdemona, Othello, and Emilia (Benko and Traore are the only 2 characters on stage [the rest are musicians], and Benko shifts between these 3 characters). Her Othello, with his deeper voice and rounded vowels, was subtle, genuine, and a really great example of moving between accents. Emilia, I loved especially. Her Desdemona voice was more husky and theatrical, but Emilia’s words were enunciated in this refreshingly straightforward way. It made me wish that Benko had stuck to her Emilia voice for the whole play, but it was also a really great vocal representation of Emilia’s straightforwardness and candour.

Overall, I thought that it was interesting but not necessarily a production I would encourage everyone to go to. I think you do need a strong understanding of the Shakespearean play to derive enjoyment (and intellectual detective pleasure) from the references/ ways that Morrison expands upon the original script, but maybe the production would work better as a compilation of poetry instead which, as the words were always being flashed up on the screen, kind of already made me evaluate it in that way.

I also really agreed with this review from SF Gate.

Watched: Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall | Saturday, 10/29, 8pm
Traveling next to New York on November 2nd-3rd.

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