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Transforming 'Othello'

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

You don't need to know all the details of Shakespeare's "Othello" to enjoy "Otelo ... Sniff," the first offering of the 15th Festival Internacional de Teatro Hispano (International Festival of Hispanic Theater) at Teatro de la Luna. In fact, the clowning and use of puppets, props, dance and music makes the production tremendously accessible, so that even if you've never seen or read the original "Othello," this one would make sense.

Adapted and performed by Claudio Rivera, of Teatro Guloya in the Dominican Republic, "Otelo ... Sniff" distills Shakespeare's plot into a play that runs for slightly more than an hour. So quite a bit of telescoping and compressing has been done in Rivera's adaptation. Yet the essential story remains, of the Moor who is convinced, by the vicious Iago, that his bride has cheated on him.

Directed by Rivera and Viena Gonzalez, this Otelo is seen in a different perspective. He appears wearing a royal purple robe but wearing a red clown nose, so he is simultaneously Otelo and Otelo's clown. Immediately, it's clear that this will not be a conventional telling of the tale. In addition, Rivera plays all the other major roles: Desdemona, Iago, Brabantio and Cassio.

Rivera is a very physical actor, and there's barely a moment when he isn't in motion, gesturing with his arms, moving all around the performing space, gyrating to Latin and Afro-West Indian dance beats. His props include two tiny puppet heads attached to long scarves, blue for Desdemona and red for Otelo, and he speaks their conversations the way a child would invent conversations between dolls.

Onstage
International Festival of Hispanic Theater
Where: Teatro de la Luna, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington
When: Through Nov. 17
Info: $30 to $35; festival passes available; 703-548-3092; teatrodelaluna.org

There's plenty of music in "Otelo," from classical to folk music to the kind of techno-pop you might hear in any club in the Dominican Republic. And though traces of Shakespeare's poetry come through here and there, this is definitely a contemporary take on the Othello story: At one point, Otelo calls Desdemona "little chick."

Monica Ferreras has created a simple set, with two tables to support Rivera's props, the most significant of which is Otelo's fantastic half-mask, designed by Ernesto Lopez. It's black, like a commedia dell'arte mask, and it gives Otelo a particularly menacing look.

The combination of Rivera's energy, his facility with the text and his ability to turn tragedy into tragicomedy makes this one of the most enjoyable productions Teatro de la Luna has presented in its 15 years of doing international festivals.

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