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By Bridgette M. Redman
LANSING – As one professional theater closes its doors in Lansing another is putting its first fully staged production before an audience.
The American Shakespeare Collective, nearly a year to the day after having its first staged reading at Schuler Bookstore at Eastwood Towne Center, is bringing "Othello" to the Dart Auditorium stage on the downtown Lansing Community College campus.
It's a homecoming of sorts for Tommy Gomez, the co-artistic director and the actor playing the title role. LCC is where he first performed Shakespeare and started a lifelong love affair with the Bard's work.
"There are a lot of reasons (the production) is at Lansing Community College," said Gomez. "It is downtown. I went to school there and I taught there. There is a sentimental value to performing there. I'm fond of LCC. Also, my point is that things can happen downtown. When the opportunity arose to be a part of LCC's Summer Stage, we jumped at the chance. Our roots are here in Lansing, and this helps us fulfill our mission of bringing innovative and brave Shakespeare productions to our local audience."
After LCC, Gomez moved to California and spent several years doing Shakespeare and other theater on the West Coast. He and his wife, fellow Collective member Christina Traister (who plays Desdemona in this production), always knew that they'd return to Michigan once they had children.
"I love Lansing," Gomez said. "I don't know why. There's something about it. I left it and I missed it. I feel comfortable in Lansing. It has that sense of home. I feel like people are much more straightforward here than in San Francisco. It's that straight forwardness I've always been attracted to. We lived (in California) for 13 years and we owned a house, but it felt like we were there to work."
It was in California that Gomez first began developing the idea that would become The American Shakespeare Collective. He said he quizzed directors and artistic directors that he worked with, trying to figure out the best practices from each company. He worked closely with Margaret Daly, a New York actress who plays the Duchess of Venice, Emilia and Bianca in this production. They examined all types of contracts and discussed what they thought would work for a company of their own.
The concept they developed was one where artists from all over the country would join the collective. A collective member submits an idea and that becomes what they work on.
"The idea is that a portion of the artists will come from somewhere else, bringing their knowledge, their arts or their format and inject those ideas to those here in Lansing," Gomez said. "They mingle with us and some locals. The idea is that we become this mixing bowl, where we are taking ideas from afar and close and putting them together to come up with this production that is hopefully unique to the person who originally produced the idea."
And the emphasis on Shakespeare came out of Gomez' long history of performing the Bard's work.
"Shakespeare was the only thing that totally tired me out," said Gomez. "I thought of that as a good sign. If it can do that, it is an amazing thing. The puzzle is unending, the themes are universal, and I love that there are big issues but they are not out of reach. I like that those big ideas affect a large community in the story."
However, the Collective plans to do Shakespeare in a non-conventional way, finding dramatic and different ways of bringing the classic works to the stage. The current production of "Othello," for example, is a streamlined version performed with only six actors: Gomez; Traister; Daly; Mark Colson as Iago; Paul Hopper as Brabantio, Montano and Lodovico; and Adam Ehrlich as Cassio. Colson hails from California, and Daly from New York. All the other performers are Michigan actors.
The idea was originally proposed by director Vincent Murphy, who is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta. The script, which has undergone many changes during the three staged readings it has had, focuses on the three couples in the story – Othello and Desdemona, Iago and Emilia and Cassio and Bianca.
"It is really focused on gender and is a really domestic approach to the play," Gomez said. "We get to follow the women more in this version. The Duke has been changed to a woman on purpose – putting a woman in a power position at the top of the play. Othello in this particular version was going to exemplify more of what we want to try to do as a whole."
While the script has been in development for a year, financial constraints have dictated a very short rehearsal time. They've had 50 hours of rehearsal over two weeks, rehearsing in five-hour blocks every other day. The short rehearsal time was made possible by everyone in the production having participated in at least one of the readings.
While the set is minimalistic, the company's endeavors have not been. Post-show panels will be part of the production, and the Collective has engaged in educational undertakings with both LCC and Michigan State University. Theater students from both schools have contributed to an understudy cast, which will also get to perform. These students have participated in Shakespeare master classes conducted by Collective members and have observed rehearsals.
"This educational component of our work is part of our intent to provide a focal point for innovatively educating young people in the classical themes, heightened language and evocative stories inherently found in Shakespeare and a broad range of classic plays," said co-artistic director John-Neville Andrews. "What better place to start than right here at LCC and in our premiere production?"
The Collective has also reached out to artists in the community with Julian Van Dyke creating a series paintings dealing with the play's overriding themes of jealousy and voyeurism.
"His challenge was to create images that came to him based on the themes we are using," Gomez explained. "All of these paintings will have to do with what 'Othello' means to him as a painter. They'll be in the lobby on display."
Local artists are also creating the jewelry that Desdemona will be wearing in the show.
"There are these local artists in different forms of art," Gomez said. "I'm interested in exploring how theater can be tied to the community as a whole, how different art forms can be connected."
For The American Shakespeare Collective, the first opportunity to bring all their efforts together will be seen this weekend and next in downtown Lansing with the passionate tale of a jealous husband and his innocent wife.
SHOW DETAILS: The American Shakespeare Collective will presents "Othello" at Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Capital, Lansing. Tickets: $15 adult, $12 senior & student. For information: 517-372-0945 or www.americanshakespearecollective.com.
7 p.m. Wednesday, July 25 (preview)
7 p.m. Thursday, July 26 (preview)
8 p.m. Friday, July 27
2 p.m. Saturday, July 28
8 p.m. Saturday, July 28
2 p.m. Sunday, July 29
7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1 (understudy performance)
7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2
8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3
2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4
8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4
2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5
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