This Summer’s Free For All: ‘Othello’

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Faran Tahir as Othello, Courtesy STC.

“Othello” is coming, Aug. 15-27, to Sidney Harman Hall in a Shakespeare Theatre Company Free For All production.

Before we get to that, let’s discuss.

In theater, audience questions have always been front and center stage. What kind of audiences, where to find them, what do they want? How to bridge the gap between what’s popular and what’s engaging, the classic and the new, what fills the house and what challenges? In short, how do you fulfill the needs of both art and commerce?

It’s a continuing debate today among performing arts institutions large and small, including and perhaps especially theaters. Shakespeare resonates mightily in the debate. The presumed elitism of presenting Shakespeare still seems to raise the ire of commentators: Shakespeare is hard, there’s archaic language (“Prithee, lend me thy sword”), the plots — albeit often borrowed — are too complicated, the 1500s are a long time ago and so on. Young people, it is said, don’t have the attention span for Shakespeare’s plays.

Except for this and these.

Shakespeare is very much in the contemporary and modern vein. His characters echo as full-bodied creations, from Caesar to kings to gardeners to gravediggers. He was a gifted linguist, a punner, a very funny guy. His poetics made us feel the innermost and outermost range of emotions. What, after all, do you do in the theater but laugh, cry, feel outrage, dream?

Young people — the market-favored audience — especially respond to Shakespeare’s plays at some elemental level at first exposure, and at some deeper, lasting level with repeated exposure.

The evidence for this came dramatically in 1991 when Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, master of innovation, and founding chairman R. Robert Linowes launched the Shakespeare Free For All productions, summer performances of full-length plays done previously by the company.

The project opened at the outdoor Carter Barron Amphitheatre with a spellbinding production of “The Tempest.” The result: 2,500 people came to see Shakespeare at his fullest under the stars. In 2009, Free For All was moved to Sidney Harman Hall downtown.

Families showed up, youngsters and teens showed up, people who might not ordinarily want, desire or be able to afford to go to the theater showed up. The idea was to serve the community, but also to spark exposure, first time and repeated.

The fare was by no means limited to accessible comedies and romances. While “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Comedy of Errors” were on the menu, so was “Hamlet” (twice) and “King Lear.” Such major actors as Sabrina Le Beauf, Kelly McGillis and Harry Hamlin (in “Henry V”) have appeared.

Free For All was recognized with the Washington Post Distinguished Service award in 1992 and the Public Humanities Award, presented by Humanities DC, in 1997.

This 27th season of Free For All features a play that is grand, multilayered and difficult, while contemporary in its relevance to the divisions in this country and the modern world.

Though it is set in a world removed from us, directors and interpreters have often updated the play in costume and setting. Be aware: in this production, there will be the sound of gunfire and characters dressed in modern military garb.

“Othello” is about a famous Moor general brought to Venice by the reigning Duke to protect the republic from attack and provide military leadership. But it’s a fraught, hostile world Othello lives in, even though he’s married to the ruler’s daughter, Desdemona.

Throw in a jealous, manipulative Iago, Othello’s lieutenant, whom he trusts implicitly, a young officer named Cassio and the uncertainty Othello carries with him, and you see the seeds of tragedy, which arrives shockingly and horribly.

The veteran American actor Faran Tahir — his heritage is Pakistani — stars as the tortured, outsized Othello in this production, directed by Ron Daniels. Tahir has a string of big-screen credits, including big epics like “Star Trek” and “Iron Man,” and a starring role in the acclaimed television series “American Crime.”

Tahir is reprising his role from a previous production. “I am incredibly excited to return to STC to play Othello again,” he said. “The play is a magnificent tragedy. When Iago says ‘I hate the Moor,’ it’s not just about a man, it’s about everything the man represents. It’s an acutely relevant exploration of racial and religious hatred.”

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