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[Theater reviews]

Ever Moor
John Douglas Thompson sells Othello


Back at the beginning of the go-go ’90s, John Douglas Thompson was tooling around New England in a little Mercedes and selling computers to banks for a Fortune 500 company. When he was laid off, a year’s severance enabled him to try acting — something he had never done, not even in college. That led to the Trinity Rep Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1994. This week he opens at the American Repertory Theatre as Shakespeare’s Othello. " I’ve never made as much money acting as I did in one year selling computers, " he laughs. Oh well, less is Moor.

At 38, Thompson is a young Othello. But this is his second crack at Shakespeare’s noble black warrior. The first was two seasons ago, at Trinity Rep, where his fiery Moor was the main spark in an energetic staging helmed by twentysomething Amanda Dehnert and played out on platforms above a pool of water that splashed equally against the shores of Venice and Cypress.

The ART Othello promises to be a very different beast. According to Thompson, the concept behind the production (which was conceived by Russian director Yuri Yeremin and is directed by David Wheeler) " is to bring out Venice and Cypress, the transition of the locales, which are incredibly different. Venice is where government is going on, where commerce is going on. It’s a vibrant, living society, whereas Cypress is a much more secluded environment, more of a military-type situation. So it starts out with a big space and then it gets really, really small. "

Perhaps, he muses, Othello’s isolation is a factor in his tragic downfall. " He doesn’t have any peers who are of his clime, his culture, his country, that he can actually talk to. What he has is Iago, who’s his best friend, and the friendship they have is built out of the bond of being warriors together. But perhaps if they were back in Venice, Othello might have had other people to talk to, to double-check or share his feelings with, someone to say, ‘Hey, this is your wife, man; you can’t believe everything everybody tells you.’ But once I’m on Cypress, the question is, ‘Who do I trust?’ And the reliance becomes on Iago. "

At the ART, the vindictive ensign who poisons Othello against his young wife is played by company stalwart Thomas Derrah. It’s a partnership that Thompson characterizes as " a luxury. I find that what is happening now for Othello is totally different from what was going on when I was doing another production, because Tommy ratchets it up levels and levels. " But is there a temptation to repeat what you did before? " The temptation is totally to change it. It’s hard for me to remember certain things, which is a good sign, because it means I’m moving in a different direction. New possibilities are opening up, hopefully more truthful. You can always go deeper. "

Sometimes contemporary black actors, endeavoring to play down the Elizabethan stereotypes about race that are embedded in the play, fail to go deep enough. No less an eminence than James Earl Jones cleaved to the dignity of the Moor, eschewing his passion, with the result that Christopher Plummer’s Iago stole the show they shared. Says Thompson, " I think in what Shakespeare wrote there is inherent racism. Not only is Othello a foreigner, but racism exists as it relates to this particular foreigner, this black person. With any African-American that would play the part, we can understand that this is not the comfort zone. I think it’s amazing that Shakespeare penned all that stuff then. I’m not saying nothing’s changed, but it’s not like we look back and say, ‘Wow, that’s archaic.’ No, it’s contemporary, and it’s a place where I can hook in. "

Thompson describes Othello as a man " driven by pure soul " ; yet he doesn’t shy from the character’s ferocity. " I think there’s a whole political correctness to this thing, and people may not want to go to the places that the character has to go. But Shakespeare wrote what he wrote, and you just have to find your way as an actor into that. I think Othello is highly intellectual, but he’s dealing with something he’s never had to deal with in his life.

" In some respects Othello is an Everyman. He just got married. He succumbs to sexual jealousy as many of us do — white, black, whatever. And things happen. That’s what’s so contemporary about it. Domestic situations bubble over into a situation where a life is taken. Yeah, he does go from A to, like, Z. But if you really look at it, and you take the political correctness out of it, this is a man who’s trying to deal with something that he just doesn’t have the facilities for. He’s trying to get a grasp on it, and in the process it explodes. "

For the record, Thompson doesn’t miss the Mercedes. And don’t look for him to return to computer sales anytime soon. " My resources there were pamphlets. Here your resource is your life. "

Othello opens in previews at the ART this Friday, November 23, and plays in repertory through January 17. Tickets are $26 to $61. Call (617) 547-8300.

Issue Date: November 22 - 29, 2001

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