Maplewood's 'Othello' offers a transforming Iago

Friday, July 16, 2010 | 2:37 p.m. CDT; updated 1:29 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 13, 2010
Iago, played by Jason Cascio, rolls out of the line of attack as Roderigo, played by Joshua Johnson, goes in for the kill during the "Othello" dress rehearsal Wednesday at the Maplewood Barn Community Theatre in Nifong Park. Desdemona, played by Elisa Bratten, Gratiano, played by Richard Buffington, and Othello, played by Seth Showalter, watch from above. The show opens Friday at 8 p.m.

COLUMBIA — The clanging of swords echoed through Nifong Park — even louder than the deep-summer singing and chirping of cicadas and crickets — at Tuesday's rehearsal. The sky faded from fire-soaked orange to star-speckled black as the characters in "Othello" were undone by Iago's villainous schemes.

Starting Friday, the Maplewood Barn Community Theatre presents this tragedy by Shakespeare, the third show in Maplewood's "phoenix season" following a fire that consumed the barn in April. The stage was singed, but its structure remained intact.

If you go

What: Shakespeare's "Othello"

When: Pre-show at 7:45 p.m., 8 p.m. show Friday, Saturday and Sunday, July 23 to 25 and July 30 to Aug. 1

Where: Maplewood Barn Community Theatre, 2900 E. Nifong Blvd.

Cost: $8 adults; $6 senior citizens and students with school IDs; $1 children 10 and younger

What to bring: Blankets or folding chairs and bug spray

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Co-director Russ Scott said he uses colorblind casting, meaning race doesn't determine whether an actor gets the part. Although Othello is usually played by a dark-skinned actor, Seth Showalter is white.

"I think people make race an issue for this show," Scott said. "There are characters in this show that refer to Othello as 'the Moor, the Moor' — they keep focusing on that. But we're focusing on everything else in the play: the jealousy, the betrayal and Iago's motives, if any, for what he does."

In Shakespeare's time, Scott said, Othello was played by a Caucasian actor with dark makeup applied.

"We're not doing too much with Seth," Scott said. "We've tattooed him and his costume is going to be clearly different than anyone else's, but other than that we're not doing anything that anyone wouldn't have done several hundred years ago."

The henna tattoos were created and applied by Elisa Bratten, who plays Othello's wife, Desdemona. The tattoos cover Showalter's arms and chest and are meant to give him an exotic, foreign look, Showalter said.

The temporary henna tattoo in the center of Showalter's chest matches Bratten's permanent ink tattoo, which remains visible throughout the show. "The directors really liked the tattoo on my back and asked me to design one like it for Seth's chest," Bratten said.

Also, women were cast into the roles of the father and duke (now the mother and duchess) which are typically performed by men. 

Playing the villain

The bad guy in "Othello" is Iago. "Iago starts out like a kid in a candy shop doing evil things," said Jason Cascio, who plays the role, "but through the course of the show he progressively becomes evil."

The character's transformation is manifested through his clothing, Cascio said.

"As the play progresses, I'm going to keep on adding black parts to my costume, so eventually at the end of the play I'll be dressed in complete black, whereas I'm going to start in complete white," Cascio said.

Cascio said he doesn't have much in common with Iago, who personifies evil and villainy.

"Your own personal conscience has to be left in the dressing room so when you go out there on the stage you can't feel any guilt or anything about what you're doing," Cascio said. "You just have to commit to it 100 percent as if it's your own idea."

Portraying a manipulative character like Iago can be challenging because he's two-faced and deceptive, Cascio said.

"At one point you can seem completely trustworthy and honest and then as soon as another character turns their back you just flip the switch and become this dark, devil, demon character who just has it out for everybody," Cascio said. "Playing villains is more fun than playing the good guys 'cause you can just add so many dimensions to them. It's a lot of fun to be evil."

Shakespeare on a dime

The set of "Othello" was built using repainted set pieces from the theater's first two shows of the season to conserve costs, Scott said.

"Almost every piece of lumber that was used in ('Arsenic and Old Lace') and 'Revenge of the Space Pandas' is used in this set, just modified a little bit," he said. "Actually, it makes building a lot easier by reusing as much as we can."

Some of the actors helped reconstruct the set, which gives them more ownership of the show, Scott said.

Most of the costumes were hand-sewn by two of the production members and the rest were pulled from the actors' own closets.

"I try to go into a show thinking we have no money," Scott said. "We've only spent on this set roughly $150, which was mainly paint. If we had to build all of this from scratch, it would be several hundred dollars, probably almost a thousand."

Michael Scott, president of the board of directors for the community theater and no relation to director Scott, said Russ Scott is "a master at looking at what's there before and saying, 'I know what I want on my set and I can use this and this.' It's a mindset really, thinking, 'How do we put up quality theater that looks good without breaking the bank?'"

The show's budget was roughly $1,000, Michael Scott said. Russ Scott said the production has stayed well below that cap.

The theater received a special, one-time $1,100 grant from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs at the beginning of the season to help out with operating expenses such as marketing, insurance, props and lumber for sets. The grant has been a big help, Michael Scott said.

Planning the theater's future

Not long after the fire on April 5 that burned down the 19th-century Maplewood Barn, theater board members, Columbia Parks and Recreation and others began discussing plans for building a new theater at the site of the old barn.

The committee hopes to have the new building open for use in May 2012, Michael Scott said. One committee member, Lyria Bartlett, is an architect and has been helping the group draw up ideas for the new barn.

"There's a very strong sentiment among all of us involved in this venture that we would like the exterior of the new structure to resemble the original Maplewood Barn," Michael Scott said.

The group is undecided on what the barn's interior will look like, Michael Scott said.

"On one end, you've got some wanting a big building with a dirt floor. And the other end, you've got the Taj Mahal of barns with auditorium seating for 500," he said. "My guess is that by the time we're good to go, it'll be somewhere in between."

Although he's unsure about amenities such as air conditioning and heating, Michael Scott predicts the interior will have a built floor, safe storage areas, restrooms and the "miracle of running water" — which the theater has never had.

The show goes on

Michael Scott said that having this summer's first show at Nifong Park was a goal he was not sure they could meet. Although "Arsenic and Old Lace" opened a week later than anticipated because of cleanup and reconstruction efforts at the park, the season's delayed opening weekend was still a success.

"The first one or two nights (of the season), there were more people who seemed to be there out of curiosity," Michael Scott said. "It was a goal we didn't think we could meet to even have our first show at the park so soon after the fire."

After opening weekend, attendance returned to levels comparable to previous years. Each night, about 50 people attended "Arsenic and Old Lace" and 30 for "Revenge of the Space Pandas."

Michael Scott expects a higher turnout for "Othello" and the musical "Camelot," the final show of the season.

"Even in a well-blended, somewhat liberal town like Columbia, you're not going to make money just doing lesser-known shows like 'Space Pandas,'" said Michael Scott. "'Camelot' will be the warhorse this year; it's big, and it's a musical."

When the barn burned down, all of the supplies, props, costumes, sets and tools were lost, along with a secure place to store them. As a special donation, two companies have loaned the theater three storage units that reside on the concrete pad behind the stage. Two of the trailers hold supplies and props for the current show; the third houses the costumes and the male and female dressing rooms.

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