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Christmas in Venice

The new Oxford Shakespeare Festival presents Othello and Through the Looking Glass.

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It was a rocky road to opening night for the Oxford Shakespeare Festival, a nascent professional company working under the umbrella of the University of Mississippi. With no budget, OSF's artistic director Joe Turner Cantú often found himself compromising on his compromises.

"I'm really very methodical," he says. "I'd gone back [and looked at] all of Shakespeare's plays. I picked Othello not for any particular reason, but it had the smallest cast. It was that or Comedy of Errors, and Othello is the better play. I hadn't really considered that it's also Shakespeare's second-longest play."

According to Cantú, all traditional notions of "directing" had to be tossed out the window.

"Usually a director comes in with a concept, and he goes to his designers with that concept. Well, I couldn't do that. We didn't have the money for that. My concept was largely going to be determined by what [sets and costumes] could be pulled from existing stock."

Just as all the pieces were coming together, disaster struck. One week away from opening, Cantú lost his Othello.

"We picked [the replacement Othello] Richard Mason up at the airport in Memphis," Cantú says. "And on the way to Oxford, the stage manager gave him his blocking notes so that when we got to town he could walk right into rehearsal."

It would be nice to say none of these hardships are apparent in OSF's Othello. Nice, but not entirely true. For starters, there is no spark between Mason (who could grow into a formidable Othello) and the sweet-faced Miranda Shields, whose Desdemona is virginal to the point of being sexless. It's impossible to imagine "the beast with two backs" being made anywhere in Othello's household, making all the rest an improbable fiction.

As the envious, woman-hating, certifiably evil Iago, Barry Lehman begins badly by striking Shakespearian poses and smartly pronouncing his lines in a vaguely British dialect. Tall, blond, and built like a California surf-dude, Lehman's a natural choice for Cassio, the hunky object of the Moor's misdirected jealousy -- a very unlikely Iago indeed. But as he settles in and starts having fun, the dialect fades, the posing stops, and Iago is presented as a Shakespearean answer to Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis's novel American Psycho.

Cantú says there wasn't much time for fine-tuning the production. He didn't really have to. The pacing is even to the point of being robotic, and it doesn't pick up when the bodies start falling in Act IV. Actors saunter on and off stage with little sense of urgency, and design metaphors go awry as rich red lights representing violent passions and bright green lights representing envy come together, making the entire stage vibrate with the very spirit of Christmas. That's not exactly the mood you're looking for when Othello chants, "Blood, blood, blood!"

In spite of its obvious problems, OSF's Othello is easy on the eyes, and the deeply cut (some might say bowdlerized) A.L. Rouse edition is easy enough to follow. At times, the utter lack of pretension is thoroughly refreshing. It's a literal-minded retelling of Shakespeare's greatest romantic tragedy, uncluttered by too much concept. Given the hurdles thrown in their way, it's a proud, if not exactly auspicious, debut for the new company.

Youth, it's often said, is wasted on the young. So too is OSF's production of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. This musical adaptation by Mississippian John Howell is too faithful to the source material. Carroll's masterpiece of reverse logic, giddy fun for ironically inclined adults and precocious children, is painfully short on narrative, and it doesn't translate easily to the stage. Even at its snail's pace, the information in Howell's adaptation flies by far too quickly, and it's easy to get deeply lost inside the frenetic, often illogical juxtaposition of action and words. The music plods along with little life, and the actors' lines are too often drowned out by squirmy falsetto voices from the audience asking, "What's going on," or "Is it over yet."

Through the Looking Glass uses a great deal of projection. When it's effective, it can be breathtaking. But the gimmick gets sorely abused. Much of the first two acts see Alice acting opposite prerecorded video of her fellow actors. It's supposed to be magical, I suppose, but it comes off as cold and lifeless. But if this Alice is imperfect (and then some), it's still an encouraging indicator. It's clear that OSF is committed to developing sophisticated children's theater that can even challenge the imagination of adults. The same treatment given to another adaptation could have been inspired. Here the blame falls solely on the material.

"Sometimes you have to make bold choices," Cantú says. "If I'm going to be the artistic director here, I feel we need to make a statement."

According to Cantú, even producing Othello (400 years old this year) was a bold choice for the Mississippi company.

"I had to have a black actor in the role," says Cantú, "and around here -- like it or not -- people might walk out when Othello and Desdemona kiss. And they have walked out.

"It's my feeling that you can't really be a Shakespeare festival unless you do at least two Shakespeare plays. My hope is that next summer we can do two Shakespeare plays and one full-length children's play. I want to keep things growing. I feel like a facilitator, a guide, and a catalyst. I would really like to grow this festival into something that's here long after I'm gone."

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