Teatro de la Luna launches its Fifteenth International Festival of Hispanic Theater with a wickedly cynical, needling, protest play that is a send-up. Dominican identity is dissected through the story of Shakespeare’s Othello.
What’s universal in Othello, Shakespeare’s play? Envy and revenge, the lust for power and penchant for violence, the capacity for destruction unleashed. From the Dominican Republic, a daring young actor/writer, Claudio Rivera in Otello…Sniff, exposes life as a descent into hell, as it is (or was) under a corrupt dictator. Rivera is a wonderful actor we have seen before in Our Lady of the Clouds (Nuestra Senora de las Nubes, in the 2009 La Luna International Festival. Stay tuned.)
Haunting wails are heard from off-stage, reminiscent of an Afro-West-Indian call and answer vocal, accompanied by syncopated Caribbean-Salsa music. Enter Iago as a red-nosed clown (Rivera), who peers out from behind an upstage black curtain. At first, he seems innocuous enough. Dressed in luminous, lavender-purple habit, Iago could be a monk. Light-of-foot, this clown creeps into a center stage spotlight to tell us, “I hate everyone.” Instantly we are together in hell, face-to-face with Iago, the supreme embodiment of evil in Shakespeare’s line-up of over-the-top villains. And through Rivera, also as narrator, he shape-shifts into Iago who assaults us with his mean-spirited, spiteful message for how he intends to destroy all illusion, all hope for utopia or a perfect society.
But first, a mild pain-killer is recommended. It helps to know what is emphasized in Shakespeare’s original (no room in the program notes) before descending into the adaptation. Envious Iago embodies evil, his entire being dedicated to destruction as he plots revenge to gain power over his army commander, Othello, a black African, in a white society, who is generous-hearted and naive. A victor on the battlefield, Othello, on the home front is easily aroused by jealousy. He is an easy target for Iago’s lies and tricks that know no limits. After stealing and planting Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassius’ bedroom, Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has cuckolded him. And the great general who loved not wisely “but too well,” smothers Desdemona, the greatest love of his life.
Otello…Sniff is adapted by Dominican actor Rivera, who also light-footedly acts and dances multi-roles with amazing, stylized physicality. There are improvised segments with audience members and spontaneous surprises throughout. Some spoilers I cannot reveal. As directed by Viena Gonzalez, Rivera’s wife, Otelo…Sniff is different every performance and fascinating to watch.
As Iago, Rivera starts off by bowing respectfully before two platforms, draped in crimson and green, and decked out like high-church altars. (Set by Monica Ferreras). >From that point on, Rivera uses a black mask (masks by Ernesto Lopez) to depict Othello, and changes vocal registers to become Brabancio, Desdemona’s embittered father. At one significant point, it seems Othello, depicted as a sword-wielding machismo man, is described as a Rafael Trujillo (assassinated in 1961), who trumps up national emergencies to unite the rabble and make himself the Savior of the island.
The structure of this dramatic piece is loose, fragmented like a photo-montage. But the entire play builds ritualistically in intensity. Rivera uses a series of makeshift, clever props, such as a soft felt hat, that serves for an impromptu scene with an audience member, who becomes Cassius. Then the hat doubles as a hand puppet for Rivera as the narrator. One altar displays a curious long-stemmed red candle that becomes a club-weapon that Iago lashes in the air with threatening menace.
Closes October 13, 2012
Gunston Arts Center – Theatre 2
2700 South Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
Friday and Saturday at 8pm
Saturday at 3pm
At another high point, Rivera drapes red altar cloths over his head, twisting them rhythmically to express Iago’s anguish. The dialogue keeps gravitating back to a variation on a theme of hate: “I hate Othello.” and builds in intensity to a embittered comment on the Christian ethic, “….to love one’s fellow man above all things…..It’s a vulgar lie!”
This is the way Rivera performs a reenactment that seems to capsize the Christian commandment of “Love one another.” Overall, this is a rambling diatribe that leaves you thinking about the disturbing parallels in our modern, geo-political world. With the mention of the Parsley Massacre (in which 30,000 people were murdered), we become aware of the parallels in 20th century Dominican history. Rafael Trujillo’s 30-year rule is now known as one of the most brutal, bloodiest in Latin American history. One suggestions: More specifics could have been mentioned about this incident in this performance for English and Spanish speakers.
Traditionally, theatre is where protest is safe in Latino countries. It’s all illusion and make-believe. So, because the great dictator has the power, why take a play seriously? (The Dominican Republic’s past contributions to Teatro de la Luna’s XIII International Hispanic Theatre Festival, in 2009, telegraphed a political message. Take Our Lady of the Clouds, (Nuestra Senora de las Nubes), by Aristides Vargas, for instance, featuring both Claudio Rivera and Viena Gonzalez, as actors.
Excellent rapid-paced dubbing in English by Marcela Ferlito.
Suitable for ages 13 and up
————————Otello…Sniff (Othello…Sniff),Adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play by Claudio Rivera. U.S. Premiere for Teatro de la Luna’s 15th International Festival of Hispanic Theater, Produced and enacted by Teatro Guloya. Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy