The Tragedy of Othello
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
August 15, 2004
The complete title of this show is The Tragedy (spelled with an IE on the end) of Othello, the Moor of Venice; attributed to William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon; A summary on cassette tape; A students' guide. The Hypocrites, a Chicago avant-garde company, has brought to New York this very portable and ambitious presentation: they will tell the story of Shakespeare’s Othello in 45 minutes with one actor, three playback machines and nine dolls, with the action played out on a card table covered with Astroturf.
A key element of the piece is at the end of its long title—“a students’ guide”—and indeed it feels like we are seeing a well-intentioned though ill-conceived school tour—perhaps the cottage industry of a man who goes from classroom to classroom with this tragedy truncated to fit between school bells. The FringeNYC venue is the Spotlight Lounge at Pace University, a no-frills, multipurpose space that helps add an education feel. Actor and "one-man-band" Kurt Ehrmann works tirelessly to bring us the story of Othello and watches us closely—almost desperate to see that we are getting it. He plays a tape which sounds like an academic relic—a students’ guide to Othello that summarizes the play act by act. Set to this narration, the man puts the dolls to work: 7 identical, little plastic blonde kewpie dolls for the supporting roles, a naked blonde Barbie for Desdemona, and—if I tell you what doll plays Othello, it would be to ruin a great laugh; let’s just say that he’s a black 80s pop icon, and bobble-headed. As the voice on the tape narrates, Ehrmann races to keep up—playing out scenes with the dolls, and sometimes portraying the villain Iago opposite them. Another tape player has an actor speaking Othello’s part, and the third device has Desdemona’s song.
To describe much more would be to give away surprises you should enjoy for yourself. The performance is audacious and hilarious. The sheer problem-solving that the man employs in his task and his need to communicate are both compelling, and elevate the piece above mere silliness or gimmickry. I happen to know Othello very well (and have experienced what it’s like to try to do it for a school in 45 minutes), but I think someone who is not familiar with the play would not only enjoy this performance, but also find at the end that they now know the story. It is an impressive party trick. I hope that The Hypocrites make regular visits to FringeNYC, and that this show gets larger crowds than the one I was with. It will help bolster the “Sing Along With Desdemona” portion of the evening. Lyrics are provided. Come add your voice to the recorded Desdemona of this production, Juice Newton.