Shakespeare anew

By By Lisa Anderson

By Lisa Anderson

“Othello’s” director, Gavin Cameron-Webb, has returned to Pioneer Memorial Theatre after 13 seasons as the Artistic Director of the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y.

As you can well imagine, Shakespeare’s works are some of the most challenging plays to direct, but the actors and director both agreed that his are some of the most satisfying as well.

“I love to direct Shakespeare more than any other playwright (because) he is so intellectually stimulating and engaging,” Cameron-Webb said.

Shakespeare’s perceptions and insights into the human condition are unparalleled, giving his works favor with audiences everywhere. Conveying 17th-century meanings to contemporary audiences is one of the biggest challenges in making the plays accessible. Shakespeare invented some words, while other words have changed meanings since he wrote his many plays. “Othello,” however, is considered to be one of the most accessible of them all.

The manuscript for “Othello” was originally published in 1622 and 1623 by different printers. One version is 150 lines shorter, while the other contains more swearing, but both are unique in other ways.

Director Cameron-Webb spent a lot of time going through the two scripts and reconciling them to come up with a script for the actors. As with any of Shakespeare’s plays, there is always the option to go back to the original text and work from there.

Cameron-Webb shed some much-needed light on how directors choose the right setting for a play. This one fit the late 19th century. The choice allows the setting to still seem remote, but accessible. Shakespeare himself was never concerned with period accuracy — “Julius Caesar” was set in Shakespearian times, rather than ancient, for example. Cameron-Webb follows his tradition of selecting a particular setting for his plays that will serve the script the best, “as long as the real animating spirit of the play and the playwright are served,” he said.

Jonathan Earl Peck has played Othello before, most recently at the San Diego Repertory Theatre last summer. Because the role is so fresh in his mind, his preparation was a little different from what it might normally be. This time, instead of furiously memorizing lines, he had to let go a little by preparing to be flexible. He had to be open to whatever the new director would do with the familiar script. Peck says the best part of playing a character by Shakespeare is that he gets to play someone who is both larger than life and well-developed. And as for acting in general, he said, “We’re all sort of kids at heart.”

Peck explained the difficulty of playing a character as complex as Othello. “The fact (is) that he IS a man, in the complete sense of the word, who has some sort of influence and some sense of his own power but at the same time is vulnerable enough to fall in love and insecure enough to have that jealous rage that men often experience,” he said.

Playing Desdemona is Jenny Mercein, whose first role in a Shakespeare play was Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Before that, she admits, she never really “got” Shakespeare. Somehow it had never clicked for her, even though she went to Yale. Mercein read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to prepare for that first role and started identifying with Helena. As she rehearsed and performed, she finally got into Shakespeare’s work and is now a devoted fan.

Othello (Jonathan Earl Peck) embraces Desdemona (Jenny Mercein) in Pioneer Memorial Theatre’s production of “Othello.”