Shakespeare is our North Star because every time we do one of his great plays, it is an opportunity to rethink our assumptions, as they define our present selves. I first saw Othello in 1969, when the Civil Rights Act was in the past but racism and segregation were not. The moment that it became obvious that Othello, a Moor and an African of the darkest hue, had married the alabaster Desdemona, you could hear a gasp rise from the audience. Equal employment was one thing, but in 1969, miscegenation was still a hard row to hoe.
In 2016, when STC first staged the Othello currently running in its free-for-all festival, many people believed, incorrectly, that America had entered a post-racial period. We had, after all, elected an African-American President, and anti-miscegenation statutes had long ago been struck down by the Supreme Court. But America has never lacked for despised groups, and so the production sought, and cast, the fine Pakistani actor Faran Tahir in the title role and implied, in the penultimate scene, that Othello was a Muslim.
The calamity in Charlottesville last week, and the subsequent racist comments by some national leaders, serves as a sharp reminder that racism is not a part of our past, but very much in our present tense. It eclipses our bigotry toward other groups, which while remaining constant loses the immediacy of, say, the post 9/11 period.
The effect is to unmoor — no pun intended — Othello from its racial implications in order to examine an even more interesting character. This Othello might have been subtitled, with justice, How Iago Set the World on Fire.
In Jay Whittaker’s fierce, manic portrayal, Iago is a man in love — with his own evil genius. When an inspiration to cause some catastrophe to a foe comes upon him, joy illuminates his face, and he squeals with pure animal pleasure. He cannot help himself; he must break the fourth wall on special occasions to tell us how bad he is. Of course, this is in the text, but in Whittaker’s hands it becomes gleeful and triumphant. He is like a small boy sharing a secret with his classmates.
Iago hates Othello. At the very outset of the play he enunciates one reason. As he explains it to Roderigo (Ben Diskant), a Shakespearean dim bulb, Andrew Aguecheek class, Othello has passed him over for promotion, in favor of Michael Cassio (Patrick Vaill). And on at least two occasions, Iago hints that his wife, Emilia (Pilar Witherspoon), committed adultery with Othello.
Most of you know the story, but I am going to summarize it here for the four that don’t, and also as a device to get in the cast names. Venice, besieged by the dangerous Turkish navy, has engaged the brilliant general Othello for its defense. Iago, looking for a way to bring Othello low, hornswaggles Roderigo into telling Venetian Senator Brabantio (David Bishins) that his pristine daughter Desdemona (Madeleine Rogers) is having sex with Othello, a “black ram.” Barbantio, a racist afire with anger, concludes that Othello must have performed witchcraft on his daughter, and marches down to the Senate to demand justice. There, before the other Senators and the Duke (a wonderfully subtle performance by Ted van Griethuysen), Othello calmly answers the charges against him. He and Desdemona are joined in honorable wedlock; the “magic” he cast was simply his storytelling, as he recounted his life. Those in the audience of a Shakespeare play should know exactly what he means.
closes August 27, 2017
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Foiled in his first attempt, Iago launches a second effort, more complex, with more deliberate collateral damage. First, pretending to be a friend to Cassio, he gets him drunk, and then induces the stoogish Roderigo to get into a fight with him. The resulting chaos causes Othello to strip Cassio of command. After that, he urges Cassio to approach Desdemona and plead with her to be restored to Othello’s grace. The sweet hearted Desdemona is moved, and thereafter carries the disgraced lieutenant’s cause to her husband. At that point, all that’s left for Iago is to reveal — in the most feignedly pained and reluctant way possible — his fake news suspicions that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair. While doing this he pleads his general show restraint and compassion, but he — and we — know that the poison has already taken root.
Tahir remains powerful and persuasive in the title role, but in order to see Othello as a race play we must import the racism of our own society. (Drew Lichtenstein makes some interesting point in his excellent program notes.) Brabantio is clearly a bigot, and Iago and Roderigo exploit that bigotry, but other than that there is no evidence in the text or the production that Othello is a victim of race hatred. The white Venetian leaders engage him as the head of their military; the white Desdemona falls passionately in love with him; the all-white army, except for the secretive Iago, are fully loyal to him. He is admired, celebrated, and loved throughout Venice and Cyprus. Even Iago does not hate him for his Moorish qualities. Instead, he hates him because of his own jealousy and envy, and because Iago loves to hate, as the salmon loves to swim upstream at spawning time.
I did not see last year’s production, which was helmed, as this one is, by Ron Daniels, but from my reading of Roy Maurer’s review and others I conclude that the approach back then was different; that Iago (who was played by a different actor) was more subdued, and that Othello’s dilemma was more firmly lodged in his otherness. But that’s OK; we get the Othello we need for the time in which we live. Today, with everything, including our sense of decency, being disrupted from unexpected sources, a play about Iago the Disrupter is strangely satisfying.
With a cast like this it was bound to be. One of the great things about a first-rate Shakespearean production is that you can almost guess a character’s backstory by the way the actor inhabits the role. Tahir’s Othello, you can sense, is a man of facile mind and intense curiosity, who loves challenges and is confident he can take on the ultimate one — command of a white Christian army. Rogers bestows the same confidence on Desdemona, although in a more intimate way; having learned to manipulate her difficult father, she knows that she can have her way with anyone. When Othello begins to turn from her, she becomes wide-eyed and lost. Much is made of Othello’s deterioration during the play, and it happens, but Desdemona’s is equally remarkable, and Rogers gives it full measure.
Whittaker’s Iago seems like a man grown up with a sense of entitlement, whose career and life disappointments are to him evidence of God’s failure. He destroys Othello, but he revenges himself on God. Roderigo, too, seems like a man doomed to disappointment; in Diskant’s strong portrayal, failure has made him credulous, like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football out of Lucy’s hold. Witherspoon’s Emilia is a woman who has borne many indignities from her husband, but, whether out of love or guilt, continues to stand by him. Less central roles — I’m thinking particularly of Gregory Linington’s loyal lieutenant Montano and Veronica del Cerro’s sizzling courtesan Bianca — are equally well thought out.
With all the fireworks on stage it is perhaps understandable that Riccardo Hernandez’s set — primarily oil drums with a backdrop of huge, mostly motionless fans, with an occasional appearance of a banner with the Lion of Venice on it — would be almost the definition of minimalism. It will help you watch Shakespeare in the best way possible: by sitting back, ignoring the distractions, and sinking your teeth into the story.
Othello by William Shakespeare, directed by Ron Daniels, assisted by Craig Baldwin. Featuring Ben Diskant, Jay Whittaker, David Bishins, Faran Tahir, Patrick Vaill, Ted van Griethuysen, Gregory Wooddell, Robbie Gay, Madeline Rogers, Gregory Linington, Pilar Witherspoon, Veronica del Cerro, Brendan EdwardKennedy, Jason Knight Pierce, Brian Reisman and Kevin Woods . Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez . Costume design by Emily Rebholz . Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind . Lighting adaption by Elizabeth A. Coco . Sound design and original music by Fitz Patton . Sign adaptation by Joel Abbott . Original fight choreography by Robb Hunter, restaged by Cliff Williams III .Drew Lichtenberg was the dramaturg . Lisa Beley was the voice and text coach. Cynthia Cahill, assisted by Rebecca Shipman, was the production stage manager . Produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s free-for-all . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.