For years, Savannahians became used to City Lights Theatre’s yearly homage to The Bard, the Savannah Shakespeare Festival.
From humble beginnings on Washington Square -- outside what was then the front porch of Jim Holt and Jody Chapin, who began the festival as “Shakespeare on the Square” -- the annual show progressed on to Telfair Square for a brief while, before settling on a more-or-less permanent home (and packed crowds) in Forsyth Park.
City Lights Theatre is no more, but the Shakespeare Festival carries on through the efforts of Joshua Stafford, a young theatre enthusiast and former Army Ranger who formed a nonprofit group specifically to ensure the festival’s continued existence.
This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Savannah Shakespeare Festival brings the classic tragedy Othello to life in Forsyth Park, a production helmed by guest director Jane McCulloch, a theatre professional of some reknown in her native England.
After a long association with the Prospect Theatre Company and the London Old Vic Theatre, McCulloch started the English Chamber Theatre in 1985, which boasts Dame Judi Dench as President.
While the “new” Shakespeare Festival continues the City Lights tradition of community involvement and deep respect for the source material, Stafford has added some twists. All actors are paid this time around -- a comparative novelty for Savannah theatre -- and not all talent is purely local.
The title role, for example, is played by Kes Khemnu, a Yale drama grad with extensive theatre experience in the northeast. Sabrina Sikes, who plays Desdemona, has family nearby but currently lives in L.A.
The key role of Iago is played by a recent arrival to Savannah, Mark Niebuhr, who has an extensive Shakespearean resume, including Broadway and Off-Broadway productions in New York City.
Also adhering to longstanding local tradition, this weekend’s Shakespeare Festival features a wide variety of family-friendly activities and performances, including Renaissance dancing, appearances by Angela Beasley’s Puppet People, and the period tunes of local songster Jamie Keena.
We recently spoke with director McCulloch, Khemnu, Sikes, Niebuhr, and local actor Patrick J. Saxon -- who plays Othello’s vainglorious fellow officer Cassio -- one afternoon during a break in their rehearsals.
Connect Savannah: Let’s start with the classic Othello question: Shouldn’t the play actually be called “Iago?”
Kes Khemnu (Othello): I don’t mind if people think that. Iago certainly yaps the most. He runs his mouth the most. And as opposed to everyone else, he talks to the audience. So in a sense he becomes the personification of the audience. But clearly, the total arc of Othello’s character, from beginning to end, obviously has the more visceral, emotional experience.
Mark Niebuhr (Iago): Where does that end? Using that logic you’d have to call Romeo and Juliet “Mercutio and Juliet.” The great thing about Othello is his passion, and that still drives the play to a great extent.
I think it works for Iago to be in the background working his little machinations, where all his plans are developing in his mind. You can almost see the wheels turning. The audience almost identifies with him as they see him coming up with his plan.
Connect Savannah: Is it just my imagination or does Iago have an incredibly large amount of lines?
Mark Niebuhr: It’s a lot of lines! I love the verse, but I mostly enjoy the prose. It’s hardest to memorize, because you don’t have that rhythm.
Jane McCulloch: I believe he may have the most lines of any Shakespearean character.
Many scholars consider that scene to the best single scene Shakespeare ever wrote -- Act 3, Scene 3, where Iago starts placing the seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind. It’s extraordinary the way the play is written, the way Iago sort of reels in his fish. He does it with such ingenuity -- it’s terrifying, yet you can’t take your eyes off of it. It’s so believable. Iago is fascinating. The entire play he’s like a pressure cooker about to go off. That much anger cannot be contained.
It’s interesting, because you know in England it’s illegal now for white actors to play Othello in blackface, as was common many years ago, most notably with Olivier. So most of the great English actors are now queuing up to play Iago.
Connect Savannah: Kes, many actors have chosen to play Othello as almost unbelievably naive. How are you handling the gullible aspect of his character?
Kes Khemnu: I prefer to see him more as blinded by his own brilliance, by his own greatness. You have to understand that’s why he was written to be a general. He was also written to be an extreme foreigner. There’s this specific town that’s surviving only because of his presence there.
Connect Savannah: Another trend, thankfully passed, is to portray Iago’s focus on Othello with a certain amount of homoeroticism.
Kes Khemnu: There’s a sense of longing, but that kind of jealousy can easily be interpreted by an audience as homoerotic. While interesting, that certainly can’t be surprising. But the way I see it, Othello is not Iago’s friend. Their relationship is strictly a hierarchical, military situation.
Connect Savannah: I’m curious as to how you out-of-towners became associated with this production. Mark, you were working in New York. How’d you end up here?
Mark Niebuhr: My wife and I had our first child in 2000. Then 9/11 happened, and my wife wasn’t too happy about staying up there, with me always going to auditions on the subway and all that. So at one point we vacationed down here and decided to stay. It was basically like closing your eyes and looking at a map.
Connect Savannah: Was it really that easy to walk away from New York theatre?
Mark Niebuhr: I didn’t enjoy it anymore, to tell you the truth. A lot of the fun is gone. Rehearsals have become so much shorter. It used to be you’d rehearse four or five weeks for a three-week run. Now you rehearse three weeks for a two-week run. It’s all being driven by economics, keeping down costs.
Connect Savannah: Kes?
Kes Khemnu: I’m basically a New York actor who happens to live in Philadelphia. From Philly I go to other places, doing Shakespeare and other things. I do a lot of summer theatre in Connecticut. I was about to commit to a production there when about three days before I found out about Othello being done here. I’ve done Othello before, about five years ago.
Connect Savannah: How about you, Sabrina? You’re kind of semi-local, aren’t you?
Sabrina Sikes (Desdemona): I went to school at FSU. Then I moved to London, and then I moved to LA. I’m from Statesboro, and I happened to be in town when the day after I got here I saw an ad in the paper for auditions. While in school I studied a lot of classics. So while at first I felt some cold feet, once I got involved I got a lot more comfortable.
Connect Savannah: The interplay between Othello and Iago is central to this play. Where does Desdemona fit in?
Sabrina Sikes: She certainly gets the brunt of the drama. I think she’s very brave, actually. She stands up to her father in front of the senators, saying she’ll marry Othello whether he likes it or not. She tells her father that Othello should be paid the same amount of respect my mother did you. At the same time, she can be very submissive, mostly to Othello. She trusts him and cares deeply about him, and believes he will always do right by her.
Connect Savannah: There’s that one moment, though, when she realizes she’s under suspicion and her whole world collapses. That sudden transition has got to be challenging.
Sabrina Sikes: Absolutely. At first she deals with it by making excuses for his behavior. He’s not the same person she fell in love with. There’s this feeling of utter helplessness, because by then there’s no one else to go to. He’s her only savior. She has nowhere to turn and she knows it.
Connect Savannah: Jane, what were you doing prior to flying into town for this?
Jane McCulloch: I just launched a production of The Merry Widow in London. I’m exhausted, actually (laughs). And of course I’ve been doing The Lost Colony in Roanoke, North Carolina, for some time. I was the first English director, as well as the first woman director of that play.
Connect Savannah: How did you get involved in The Lost Colony?
Jane McCulloch: They brought me in to sort of pull the play out of this huge amount of fights and choreography and fireworks. I had been warned before I came over about a certain tendency towards pageantry in some American shows. The fights and all that are just wonderful, very well done, but there was this feeling that the play itself was getting lost under all that.
Connect Savannah: What are some differences between theatre in the U.K. and the U.S.?
Jane McCulloch: In England you have to be a professional. Everybody who is in the theatre in England, anyone who is paid, has to be a member of the Equity Union. In America this isn’t the case, which actually brings some advantages. There’s a sheer concentration over here that I find marvelous, as opposed to the blase attitude of English actors. The intensity here is exciting. It’s very different -- I find an energy, an enthusiasm here.
But we’re now trying to catch up with you in one area: There are now two or three schools for musical theatre in England. Musicals are more and more where the commercial success is. In a very real sense it’s now what makes it possible to do the classics, because classics never make any money.
The downside in America is you don’t have people who all have the same level of training. You get a lot of variation in technique and experience. You can indulge in certain methods -- methods that bring bad habits and that can get in the way of quality. Personally, I don’t mind what method is used as long as you get there.
Kes Khemnu: We’re basically the bastards of England, so any of their baggage becomes our baggage. If instead we had gotten our independence from Russia, we’d all be doing Chekhov now.
Connect Savannah: Jane, you’ve actually updated the setting for this play.
Jane McCulloch: I’ve chosen 1914 as the setting for this production, because that period has a lot of formality, but also a certain modernity. Over the years I’ve done about five Shakespeare productions in the Edwardian period, because it does fit so well.
As for more modern settings, I’m not opposed to them. I’ve done a Love’s Labor Lost, for example, updated all the way to the ‘70s, which I think is a time that rather fits that play well. But you have to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the play. For this play, we’re using a barebones set, bare except for two pillars. There’s a curtain in back which will have variations in how it’s hung from scene to scene.
Connect Savannah: The minimalist set will in turn make the costuming even more important.
Jane McCulloch: Absolutely. As a director, I love costumes. I love lighting. I love music. All of it enhances the production.
Kes Khemnu: I’m OK with modern productions of Shakespeare, but you have to keep guns out of it. That’s where I draw the line. There’s a whole different dynamic with guns that just doesn’t work in Shakespeare. There’s not that will, that heroism, you get with someone having to pull out their sword and use it. Guns are not heroic.
Connect Savannah: Patrick, local theatregoers have seen you in many productions. Tell us about your character in this one.
Patrick J. Saxon (Cassio): He’s a goody-goody two shoes. No flair at all, much too prissy. I like to take a character that’s sort of a blank slate. Then it becomes about what you bring to it yourself as an actor. This production is particularly important to me, because I want make sure this is done right, especially for the kids. This is a rare opportunity for children to see that Shakespeare isn’t necessarily like Masterpiece Theatre -- it’s accessible.
Jane McCulloch: That’s the extraordinary thing about Shakespeare -- once you get beyond the Elizabethan language, he’s thoroughly modern. People get so frightened of doing Shakespeare. But you know, acting is very simple. The only right way to do it is if it works for an audience.
With Othello the key is to grab the audience’s attention right away, from the opening scene. Once you do that, they all will be held, because it’s a compelling story that just doesn’t let up. Everyone knows about jealousy, and about the terrible evil that can be brought about by it. There’s sexual jealousy, but there’s also the situation of being jealous of someone else’s position and achievements.
And of course there’s no redeeming feature at the end, not even a regime change or anything. All you’re left with is dead bodies. It’s all terrifyingly, horribly real. ç
Othello is performed this Friday, Saturday and Sunday night in Forsyth Park. The cast of Othello in alphabetical order: Anna Burrell, Roger Cross, Barry Finch, Ron Goodwin, Kes Khemnu, Robert Mayes, Mark Niebuhr, Mark Rand, Patrick J. Saxon, McLean Smith, Chris Soucy, Sabrina Sikes, Toby Thelin, Skye Whitcomb, Maureen Yasko.