Bringing Shakespeare to life

DORSET - In rehearsal, Gary Meitrott, artistic director of Shakespeare on Main Street, is a mercurial presence -- silent and intent as he watches, and then bounding up to the actor, full of expressive, infectious energy that obliterates boundaries. He is directing Todd Houston who is playing Iago in SoMS's upcoming production of "Othello," and chops the air with his hand.

"You'll have to take my drumming class - the language has rhythm! This part will beat you up, my friend," he said.

Iago, a grueling role, is the greatest of Shakespeare's arch villains. He tricks his commander, Othello, into believing his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. Othello murders his wife but then discovers his mistake, and kills himself. The tragedy unfolds as the noble, honorable Othello de scends into jealousy and rage, and Desdemona's kindness becomes her downfall.

Complicating the story is a racial and religious dynamic -Othello, a black "Moor," presumably born Muslim and converted to Christianity, has eloped with an upper-class, white Venetian woman.

Meitrott, never shy about bringing Shake speare's adrenaline-filled plots to life, says: "We're setting Othello' in 2012 because it reflects what's happening today. Muslim vs Christian, racial tensions, domestic violence. Human nature hasn't evolved, despite our technical wizardry."

Keith Smith, of Burlington, who plays Othello, appears both athletic and elegant. He trained in New York as an actor, including at the Lee Strasberg institute, and ironically, works as a counselor at UVM with students involved in gender-based sexual violence. When asked whether the audience will feel sympathy for Othello, he looks doubtful.

"The question isn't whether Othello is a nice guy; it's whether he's human," he said.

He goes on to describe a speech in which Othello explains to the Duke how he managed to woo Desdemona.

"It's a beautiful speech, but it's tricky because there's a combination of boastfulness, politeness, tenderness, and some defensiveness," he said.

Smith sees Shakespeare's play as unnervingly relevant to the modern world because Othello's elevated position in Venetian society is heavily dependent upon his usefulness to the state. He wryly points to the recent ugly dust-up surrounding the NBA Clippers owner as a case in point.

Iago's hatred for Othello is a complex mix of racism and jealousy but it is also mysterious, and Meitrott uses the rehearsal process to set a chemistry in motion that explores this mystery. He pushes his actors to stretch for deeper meaning in Shakespeare's words until they can live them physically onstage. It's a challenge for an actor because these words, written 400 years ago, can seem like ancient tongue-twisters to the modern ear.

Meitrott explains, "We've become lazy and want to simplify language, but there's immense creativity to be awakened. In our culture, despite the emphasis on being an individual, the majority play it safe. I want my actors to risk more and find a deeper honesty in performance."

The New York Times ran nationwide summer Shakespeare listings this May and despite the panic over the demise of English literacy through texting, video games, and the hijacking of public education by the computer industry, it's obvious Shakespeare is more in vogue than ever. Meitrott, who was mimicking Laurence Olivier's august Shakespearean roles on old L.P.'s at age 10, isn't surprised. He's been directing Shakespeare's plays for decades in places as varied as the Poultney High School to the Great Meadow Correctional Institute in New York State where he was part of an experimental prisoner rehabilitation program. He's found that, "people, no matter who they are, when they're given the ability to speak from a place of such heightened use of language, it empowers. I see the individual become stronger in his or her sense of self."

Or, in the immortal words of Hamlet: "To be or not to be, that is the question." Meitrott's circuitous route to self-discovery and Shakespeare, came after his BFA at Ithaca College and a move to New York City in the late 1970s where he directed opera, acted on Broadway for 3 years, toured with "Grease," mastered African, Latin, and Haitian drumming, spent time as a cab driver --"I saw myself as the Ambassador of the city" -- and then, after visiting a friend in Vermont in 1994, realized he belonged here. Famous in Rutland for leading a band of drumming skeletons in the annual Halloween parade, he also taught for several years at Green Mountain College, and founded Shakespeare on Main Street ten years ago in Poultney. This year, he decided to relocate the company to Manchester, and is taking "Othello" on tour, bringing Shakespeare to the people, in Poultney, Manchester, and Brandon.

I acted under Meitrott's direction in SoMS's "Comedy of Errors" last summer, and was an early board member instrumental in the relocation. As I listen to Keith Smith describing Othello with Desdemona, he says, "he's like the guy in the bar, saying, "take a look at this scar. I got it in a battle when ...'"

I see Gary's hand at work, illuminating this deeply flawed soldier, and adding another jewel to our cultural scene while standing on the fertile, enduring ground of a 16th century poet.

"Othello" is being performed at the BBA Riley Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Aug. 1, and Saturday, Aug. 2, at 7:30 p.m. , and on Sunday, Aug. 3, at 2 p.m.


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