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Shakespeare Festival St. Louis Presents 'Othello,' a Tale of Race, Betrayal, Jealousy and Deceit

The free shows run at 8 p.m. nightly except Tuesdays May 23-June 17 in Shakespeare Glen, east of the St. Louis Art Museum.

One of Justin Blanchard’s fondest memories from performing in the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis production of Hamlet two years ago is the time he spent talking with audience members after each show’s final curtain.

“I always like to come out afterwards. We kind of just mingle with the crowd, and talk with people,” he said. “You can grab me afterwards and ask me questions or tell me what you thought. I always welcome that kind of feedback and interaction with people who have questions. I think that’s a really wonderful part about the festival.”

Blanchard plays the villainous Iago in this season’s Shakespeare Festival production of Othello, which runs at 8 p.m. nightly except Tuesdays May 23 through June 17 in Shakespeare Glen, just east of the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. Blanchard, who has performed on Broadway, spoke recently as the actors were preparing to leave their windowless basement rehearsal space for the great outdoors.

“We move into the park today, which is really exciting,” he said. “I love when people start coming out to rehearsal, and people are jogging by in the park and stop and listen. You know, you get to see part of rehearsal - that’s a neat feeling. I love when we get outside in the sun and the elements. I can’t wait.”

He is enthused about working with director Bruce Longworth, who also directed Hamlet.

“I think he’s the best Shakespeare director in the country,” Blanchard said. “He’s thorough, he’s exact, he’s meticulous – I couldn’t enjoy it more. It’s a joy to come to rehearsal every day, and that’s not hyperbole. … He’s a great director, and I think we’re putting together something really special for the park this year.”

This is the twelfth season for the Shakespeare Festival, and outdoor plays are a terrific experience for actor and audience.

“This is a great time of year to be performing in St. Louis,” Blanchard said. “Early summer – there are going to be some beautiful nights out there.”

Still, it is outdoors, which can’t be controlled like an indoor venue.

“Some of the challenges are the heat and the humidity, of course,” he said. “Telling a great story outside is tough. You have elements like bats, bugs – I’ve swallowed bugs out there before. Telling a story outside in the middle of the summer can sometimes bring those challenges, true. But those challenges are just little distractions from what I think is one of the greatest stories ever written.”

Blanchard has acted in several Shakespeare plays and is a big fan of the Bard.

“He’s the greatest writer, for sure, hands down,” he said. “There’s no argument in my book. … This guy is mind-blowing in his skills. Just his ability to lay out metaphors and similes and connect all those things through to a true emotional arc is just (amazing). Yeah, I keep coming back to it because it’s great writing.”

Othello is described by Shakespeare Festival executive director Rick Dildine as a play “about race, betrayal, jealousy and deceit.” Blanchard uses the word “otherness” to describe the story’s message.

“It’s a play about being on the outside,” he said. “And of course it’s a play about race, and jealousy, and what people deserve.”

Blanchard likes playing clowns, but he also has no problem assuming the mantle of villain.

“I think we all have it is us, which is why Iago is a great villain,” he said. “He believes in things, and feels himself to be wronged in some way, and meticulously and diabolically exacts his revenge on this group of people and the society he believes he is wronged by.”

Blanchard, raised in San Antonio and now a resident of Brooklyn, NY, can tap into personal experience to explore Iago’s dark side.

“The sort of personal rage I feel sometimes about my bank, or about parking tickets in St. Louis, or having to wait too long because the robotics convention is in town and I wanted to eat some Pappy’s barbecue – those little moments where I really want to tell people what I think and how I feel, when you want to leap outside of the social confines and tell people how you feel – those little moments are the moments of danger that Iago really relishes.”

Even an accomplished actor, whose credits also include Law and Order: SVU, can benefit from bringing a bit of life experience to a role.

“I absolutely need those experiences,” he said. “I’m first and foremost a human being. There’s that great phrase, ‘Do you work to live, or live to work?’ I think Iago is dealing with that as well. He is, at the beginning of the play, railing against not being promoted as Othello’s lieutenant. That really becomes the pinpoint of this problem, being passed over for promotion. And that’s a very personal thing.”

So is the story of Othello, a powerful, complex general.

“We watch a great man crumble,” Blanchard said. “It’s a battle. Billy Eugene Jones, who plays Othello, they’re really going to enjoy him. He’s
a great actor.”

The battle between Othello and Iago makes for great drama.

“It’s hard to bring him down,” Blanchard said, laughing. “It’s not easy, so we go at it. So I think it’s some really exciting theater. The feeling I get watching some of this, that I’m not in, is that it really pops – the story pops. And you often forget that it’s Shakespeare, due to the writing, and the acting going on.”

Blanchard got the opportunity to see Meet Me in St. Louis at The Muny when he was here in 2010, and said the Shakespeare Festival provides the same quality.

“The quality of offerings at the Shakespeare Festival is on par with The Muny,” he said. “We’re looking to bring that same level of professionalism to the stage. If you’re not acquainted with the Shakespeare Festival, this is a great summer to get acquainted.”

Blanchard is a big sports fan and said theater can give people the same thrills sports offer.

“I consider acting to be on par with live athletics—emotionally, physically—I do think that they can be as engaging. So come out to the park this summer and watch some live action stories.”

In addition to Blanchard and Jones, Heather Wood stars as the Venetian debutante, Desdemona. Dildine is pleased with the cast.

“Billy Eugene Jones is one of the most impressive actors in the country right now,” Dildine said. “The depth he brings to his roles is bar none compared to others. He is a phenomenal talent and we are incredibly lucky to have him leading the cast. Heather is one of the most sought-after ingénues in the country, capable of combining both a sweet naiveté with power in her roles. Justin is an all-encompassing force of nature when it comes to stage artistry. Not only does he act, he’s a writer and director. He does it all. St. Louisans are really in for a remarkable treat this season.”

The Shakespeare Festival is free, with no reserved seating. A pre-show starts at 6:30 p.m. and includes a 20-minute adaptation of “Othello” that introduces the characters and plot. Backstage tours also start at 6:30 p.m. The main show begins at 8 p.m.

Audience members are encouraged to bring blankets and low-backed chairs. Picnic fare, beer, wine, soda and water will be for sale. The show is wheelchair accessible.

For more information, see the www.sfstl.com Web site or call 314-531-9800. To make sure the show is on, call the Weather Hotline at 314-531-9800, ext. 7.

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