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The Folger Spotlight

Robert Richmond & Kingdom of Heaven

Well, hello! It’s your Folger blogfriend Louis here. There are a couple of things that it now seems prudent to reveal to you, if you’re there.

The first thing to say is that I’ve been cheating on you, just a little bit. My theater company, Psittacus Productions, just closed a brand new musical, CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera, at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Othello rehearsals and CYCLOPS performances for the past couple of weeks.  This has meant getting very well acquainted with the vicissitudes of the Bolt Bus and of Interstate 95. In fact, this post is coming to you live from the Bolt Bus right now. I should mention here that if the Bolt Bus lacks in leg room and respectability, it more than makes up for it in electrical outlets and wireless internet.

In any event, I rehearsed Othello on Sunday up to the dinner break, then raced up to New York, did the closing night performance of CYCLOPS at 11pm, loaded out of the theater, may have had a couple of cocktails, and now, here we are:  Monday, the “day off” from Othello, and I am returning to DC. On the Bolt Bus.

I won’t go into detail about Psittacus Productions and our work, but I do believe it bears mentioning here because Robert Richmond, director of Othello and longtime colleague, is on our board and is our “Director-At-Large.” There it is: Revelation #1.

Revelation #2:  In an earlier post, I alluded to the fact that Robert and I have a long history together. Specifically, he and I, as well as Othello composer Anthony Cochrane, spent over a decade working with a classical theater company out of New York City. With that company, we created two plays in repertory each year, performed them Off-Broadway, at regional theaters, and toured them to every state but Hawaii, and across Europe. A production of Julius Caesar we did with that company here at the Folger in 2000 was our very first introduction to this amazing place.

All of this is just to say that I’d now like to talk a little bit about Robert, and the process by which he pulls a production together. I can’t claim to know what happens inside his head, for which I am eternally grateful, but he and I have walked down this path together many times, and I feel uniquely qualified to attempt to put it across. Or, at the very least, to give you my side of the story.

Early in the process of putting up a play, before rehearsals and design have begun in earnest, Robert tends to become fixated on a central image or notion. This can take any number of forms – it can be a particular movie or piece of music, it can be a literal image like a painting, it can be a person, it can be a type of place, like a prison or a bazaar. Regardless of what it is, this image or notion is the kernel of the idea from which the whole evening will grow.

By way of example:

The very first play I ever worked on with Robert was Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. I played both of the Dromio twins. As a side note, we faked a bio for my imaginary twin brother, “John Butelli” who, in one horrifying instance, was given a much, much better review than was Louis Butelli. Regardless, the central image for Comedy was Belgian artist Herge’s beloved comic serial, TinTin.

Last year we worked on “Shakespeare’s” Henry VIII here at the Folger. For that, Robert became fascinated by a person – Henry’s own clown, Will Sommers. Part of the Library’s collection included a woodcut drawing of Sommers himself, looking gaunt and vaguely menacing. It was to this strange man and the strange picture of him that we kept returning.

For Othello, Robert has become fixated on the movie, Kingdom Of Heaven.  In case you’re not familiar with it, Kingdom Of Heaven is a film from 2005 directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Orlando Bloom. It is 1185 in France, and we discover the story of a young blacksmith whose wife has committed suicide. To escape the pain of that, the blacksmith joins a band of knights on a Crusade to Jerusalem. Much mayhem ensues – including, most pricelessly, encounters with a “leper king.”


While I don’t believe Robert has plans to include leprosy in our production of Othello, there are several other ways in which the film operates as a touchstone for all of us. I’ll get more specific about each of these departments in a subsequent entry, so I’ll just thumbnail it here.

Design. William Ivey Long, who is designing the costumes, has seen the film and incorporated it into his extensive research of the clothing of that period. The entire basement level at the theater is plastered in images from his research, some of them production stills from the movie. Anthony Cochrane, who is composing the music, is already a huge cinephile, and often draws inspiration for his compositions from cinematic scores. Having designed tons of shows for Robert, he is creating a period soundscape, and listening to Harry Gregson-Williams’ Kingdom Of Heaven score. Tony Cisek, who is designing the set, has the challenging task of transforming a space which is already pretty specific in terms of time period (ie, the Folger stage itself) into Venice and Cyprus of the Middle Ages. I’ve been fascinated to watch this start to come together, and won’t spoil the surprise.

Dramaturgy. Michele Osherow, the excellent dramaturg on Othello, has been a real champion for some of the conceptual things that Robert hopes to lay onto the play. Given this Kingdom Of Heaven-inspired notion of Crusaders on Cyprus, it opens up a whole can of worms about who Othello himself is. He is a Moor, to be certain, but, considering the time period, what does that actually mean? For folks in the Middle Ages, the term “Moor” mainly referred to Berbers (ethnically and culturally Arab from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria), but was also used in reference to West Africans from Mali and Niger. “Moor” was also used to describe the inhabitants of the Arab Empire which occupied the Iberian Peninsula for 800 years. The word itself has no real ethnology attached to it and, in its broadest sense, primarily means “person from somewhere in North Africa.”

Historically, Othello has had roots in the idea of “blackness.” Politics aside, in 20th– and 21st-century Western theater terms, we take this to mean, primarily, “other.” The first thing Iago says to us is, “I hate the Moor.” Othello himself says of his plight, “mayhap it is because I am black.” Owiso Odera, the actor playing Othello, is from Kenya, and does indeed have dark skin. Still, with the Crusades as a point for leaping off, Robert began to wonder if it is not only Othello’s “blackness” that sets him apart – perhaps, as a Moor, he is also Muslim. In a world of hyper-Christian “soldiers for God,” (and the motivation for the Crusades is probably another blog post entirely), a dark-skinned Muslim would be very much the “other” indeed.

Actors.  The impact of the Kingdom Of Heaven kernel on us actors is something of an open question. More specifically (note that I resisted the impulse there to say, “Moor specifically”), every actor is different, and has a unique and highly personal approach to a role. It is further complicated when it is Shakespeare; we’ve all come from different traditions and sets of training, some of them in conflict ideologically. If anything, having one large, overriding frame of reference, ie Kingdom Of Heaven, helps to remind us that the goal is for all of us actors to inhabit the same world. While I won’t talk here about my thoughts on Orlando Bloom as inspiration, I will say that it is enormously helpful to keep reminding myself that we are not playing a kitchen sink drama. We are playing out the story of the most extraordinary day in the whole of these characters’ lives. What is so beautiful about the theater, and Robert’s approach in particular, is that we use words, design, and conceptualization to bring to the stage the same epic sweep as a film with a budget of $147 million. If we don’t quite have the funds, we have something even more valuable. You. Sitting in the audience. Engaging your imagination. Breathing the same air as us.

There is quite a lot more to say about Robert and his approach, particularly about how he actually works with actors in the rehearsal hall, but I think I’ll save it for another post.

For now, I’ll just say this. I mentioned my show CYCLOPS earlier. What I didn’t mention is that I also directed it. On a personal note, I’d just like to thank Robert. I took him and the work that he does as a director entirely for granted until I’d done it myself. It’s not an easy gig – one must really, really, really enjoy answering questions. So, thanks, Robert. And, “why would my character do that?” Haha.

Moor soon!