Kate Burton’s production of Othello with the MFA program at USC was a curious case of poor decisions. Given a set group of actors to produce a given play, it is unclear why the school chose Othello, a play wrought with racial tension and relying heavily on themes of otherness, to do with an incredibly diverse group of actors. The irony of the situation is obvious; USC has struggled to put on plays in the past due to a lack of diversity in the undergrad program, and given this cast chooses one of the few plays where diversity weakens the message. This was not the only issue the play had, but its immediate apparentness set the scene for the rest of the play.
Opening on Iago and Roderigo running through the audience in the dark of night and the theatre, Burton’s show immediately showed another issue that would plague the run. Audience members had a difficult time seeing much of the stage and many of the actors throughout. A change in set design completely undermined the efforts of the lighting designer who, without any real set to speak of, could not adequately light the massive space of the Bing theatre. These opening scenes were constantly dim and any interactions in the audience were utterly impossible to see. The decision to remove the set demonstrates the lack of directing experience Burton has.
Regardless of the director, it is impossible to argue that this show was going to be successful. The actors involved in the show failed to deliver at some of the most crucial moments. Iago lacked the malice and conceit necessary, Desdemona delivered stone-faced performances, and the Bianca’s acting was so distracting that it often shattered any degree of tension in a scene. The Othello did stand out as competent and compelling, but amidst the other performances, its unlikely many audience members were affected. This is not to say that these people cannot act; SDA and its MFA program consistently chooses actors with a lack of experience available to many others. In this respect, the show was a success.
USC often has a problem selecting shows that will be conducive to the learning of its students. While it is much easier to learn at a more basic level, MFA show selection shows that the school is capable of producing art that will better its students. I have no doubts that the MFA class learned a great deal from Kate Burton (and that she likely continues to learn about directing). But why can the school not make these connections for undergrad students? Hopefully, better times are on the horizon.