Theater Review: Ocean State Theatre's 'Billy Elliot' & Burbage Theatre's 'Desdemona'

Oct 10, 2016

Rhode Island's booming theater scene is in full pulse these days Which has lead Rhode Island Public Radio's  Bill Gale to double up.

Here are reviews of the musical “Billy Elliot” at the Ocean State Theatre in Warwick and “Desdemona” at the Burbage Theatre in downtown Providence.

Let's start with “Billy Elliot,.” that winner of numerous awards  in London, New York and indeed around the world that the Los Angeles Times once called a “global theatrical phenomenon.”

Taken from a 2000 film of the same name, “Billy Elliot” is a tale of two struggles. One is the need of an 11-year-old, motherless boy who strives, needs, really, to become a ballet dancer, something rarely, if ever, seen in his northeast England small town that depends completely on coal mining.

On the other hand is the fateful, vicious struggle of the town's miners who lose out as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher nationalizes the mining business, Thousands of workers lose their jobs.

It's a tough sell and at the Ocean State “Billy Elliot” just does not meet the mark. Directed by Amiee Turner this production is overdone, over-loaded with the obvious. It shouts and cries and pushes far too hard, far too loud, to catch the inherent combination of need and aspiration that has certainly been present in other productions.

Scene after scene is completely too noisy, too driven, rarely allowing an understanding of the needs of an 11-year-old, and his failing father.

True enough, there's plenty of effort. Billy is played with some driven dancing by Mathew Dean, a California boy brought in just for this show. He's got drive and desire, along with athletic dancing. As his  father, Ocean State's veteran, Christopher Swan, is just fine as a man losing his future even as he aids his son onward.

But overall, this “Billy Elliot” is all noise, not enough nuance.

That's not true with “Desdemona,” a 1993 play by Paula Vogel, the former Brown professor now at Yale. What Vogel's done is to take a look at Shakespeare's “Othello” from the standpoint of the play's three women.

Enter Desdemona, Othello's wife, Emilia, her maid, and Bianca, a prostitute. Three very different females who all face the same blunted edge – they live in a difficult time, the losers in a man's world, the victims caught “in the cross hairs of patriarchy” as one critic has said.

Vogel's short but pithy play asks the question of whether their wasted lives are truly different from the times of women in 1993. You could say that surely there are many changes, many improvements. But the playwright asks her audience to merely consider the similarites that may still exist.

At the Burbage, director Allison Crews has put together a quick, accurate production. The three performers, Valerie Westgate, Christin Goff and Rachael Perry are all competent even as they struggle with Vogel's seeming foolishness of having one speak in an Irish brogue, another in cockney English and the third as a good old American.

That put aside, “Desdemona” is a play worth reviving, a work asking questions that still ring in our time, our world.

“Billy Elliot” continues at the Ocean Sate Theatre though October 23rd. “Desdemona” is at the Burbage Theatre through Oct. 15th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio