To frame a story about the triumph of lies over truth, jealousy over love, anger over generosity of spirit and – let’s put it plainly – the insidious reach of racism over all decent impulses, even self-preservation, the American Shakespeare Center begins its live performance of Othello with a pledging of troth.
In an imagined scene, the great general Othello (Jessika D. Williams) and his beloved Desdemona (Mia Wurgaft) exchange a handkerchief, fraught with meaning and doomed later for weaponization, and sing to each other Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” – a song which recognizes that death with one’s beloved is superior to life without her. Invoking Eurydice and Orpheus, it presages a wedding without the traditional phrase, “’Til death do us part.” It is a song with particular resonance in our melancholy present tense, where bewildered men and women are saying goodbye, long distance, to their life partners. For Othello and Desdemona, it is a lasting and horrible irony.
Othello is the story of the Moorish General, a stranger in a strange land, brought to Venice to provide military leadership to a besieged nation. He is a great man, but he is untouchable; one thinks of Muhammed Ali after winning his Olympic gold medal, unable to get a coffee in his local coffeeshop. It is also the story of Desdemona, bold and optimistic, a woman who considers herself untouchable, but in a different sense. Even the virulent racism of Venice (“an old black ram Is schtupping your white ewe,” Iago [John Harrell] brays from his hiding place to her father Brabantio [Matthew Radford Davies]) is as nothing to her.
And it is the story of Iago, a man who has nothing to lose, and thus becomes both an apostle and an agent of chaos. Iago has two grievances against Othello: he promoted Michael Cassio (Brandon Carter) to lieutenant, a rank Iago thought was his, and, in addition, he had (Iago believes) an affair with Iago’s wife Emelia (the fiery Constance Swain). At the point we see him, he no longer has ambition for himself; he has given himself over to causing pain to others, in particular, Othello.
Iago’s plan is simple, elegant and deadly. He first enlists a cat’s-paw, a stooge: Roderigo (Zoe Speas), who is supersaturated in fruitless love for Desdemona. (He sells his lands to buy jewels for her. He gives them to Iago to pass them on. Guess what happens to them). Then, pretending to be a friend to Cassio (and to all), he gets the lieutenant drunk and then induces Roderigo to engage him in a fight, with disastrous consequences for Othello’s second: Othello, seeing his lieutenant drunk and disorderly, strips him of his rank. Then, he convinces Cassio to ask Desdemona to intercede with Othello, to return him to the General’s favor. Then he convinces Othello that Desdemona’s innocent pleading masks a darker purpose: she is having an affair with the younger man.
That’s the story line, but it is in the staging of it that we receive its meaning and emotional resonance. ASC has made its reputation on, among other things, nontraditional casting, but there are two traditional imperatives for this play: Othello must be a Black man, and Desdemona must be a White woman. (Shakespeare Theatre Company cast Patrick Stewart and Faran Tahir as Othellos; these productions, in my view, were not entirely successful). ASC confounds these expectations in part by casting the remarkable Williams as Othello. Williams has just come off a successful run as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Her portrayal of this mischievous, aggressive, sexually unambiguous male was utterly convincing, and I believe that she could play a ham sandwich, or, with a hula hoop, the planet Saturn with equal facility. Here, she plays an anti-Benedick; an utterly humorless leader, weighed down with responsibilities, outwardly strong but inwardly fragile, the façade eager to crack under Iago’s expert probing.
Williams dismisses the gender issue so quickly that we can immediately focus on what she has done with the character. Decisiveness is an important part of leadership, especially military leadership; a subordinate is more likely to have faith in his leader if the leader reaches his conclusions quickly and with certainty. Thus from the very beginning Othello delivers his lines at a machine-gun pace, calming Brabantio’s ranting rage, accepting his commission from the Duke (Michael Manocchio), arranging to take Desdemona with him as he defends Cyprus against the rampaging Turks. For Williams’ Othello, rapid-fire speech displays rapid-fire thinking, and such a demonstration shields him against the special skepticism a leader of color faces in a land of milky-white faces.
But this manner of command is his undoing, too, when faced with problems less navigable than geo-political waters. Confronted with Iago’s subtle inferences, Othello crumbles as quickly and decisively as he leads. His words continue to pour forth at a relentless pace (so quickly that in the production I saw, Williams seemed to be fighting her lines occasionally) but now they are nonsense words; hiccups of fear; burps of despair. At one point the words come out faster than the speed of thought, and he falls into an epileptic fit, and then into catalepsy. (Iago calls it an “ecstasy” and in a sense it is). Williams is superb in capturing the sense of a man captivated by a need to utter; the practice by which he commands paves the way for his command to give way, and when he falls to the floor, twitching and senseless, it appears to be simply the climax of the speech he has just given.
An Othello like this is the perfect foil for the Iago that Harrell presents, which is to say, a man as fearless as a mountain goat. Harrell’s Iago is all plot and no consequence; without desire for his own gain, he is the king of pain for others. Like Shakespeare’s other great plotting villains – Richard III, Aaron the Moor, King Lear’s Edmund – Iago breaks the fourth wall with impunity to explain how clever he is. Harrell’s Iago does so with a particular joy. Indeed, he seems at any moment prepared to break out into song, and he actually starts the second Act by singing The Police’s “Every Step You Take” while plunking a ukulele; Roderigo accompanies him toward the end by doing the doo-wop part.
When he brings in the stoup of wine which will be Cassio’s undoing, he dances a little jig; as Cassio, demoted, departs, Iago’s feet fly with joy. It is of no matter to him that his plot, if successful, will deprive Venice of its military leadership and thus bare its throat to its enemies. Nor does it matter to Iago what happens to his own self. As the play moves to its dreadful climax, Iago says to the audience, “This is the night that either makes me or fordoes me quite,” and in Harrell’s presentation, it’s obvious that Iago doesn’t care which one it is. Harrell’s Iago, in the popular parlance, lives in the moment. It is the best performance I have ever seen this veteran ASC mainstay give.
ASC, and director Ethan McSweeny, make an interesting choice with Desdemona as well. In most Othellos I’ve seen, Desdemona is extremely young, innocent and naïve; in Wurgaft, a more mature actor, we get a more knowing bride for Othello. She is not the submissive victim, as she usually is, but a clever, self-confident, grown woman with a sense of adventure that she means to satisfy. She is face-forward with her father in her confrontation with him at the top of the play (Davies is excellent in that scene as well), and when Othello turns on her, she is more confrontational than frightened. This approach to the character helps us to understand why Othello is apt to believe Iago’s lies about her; like many men who love strong women, he is also a little afraid of her.
Not all of the production’s choices make as much sense. Roderigo is a dolt, but he is a masculine dolt; his brainless passion for Desdemona is testosterone-driven. Although she is an excellent actor, Speas does not capture the hairy ape persona of Roderigo. Her voice is too high; her aspect too feminine. We can conceive of Speas’ Roderigo as a boy, which suggests that his longing for Desdemona is more for maternal than passionate love, but it is hard to reconcile with the character’s apparent control over his wealth. Speas nails Roderigo’s comic buffoonery, but I think it would have been easier to remain in the fictive dream if the character appeared to be an adult male.
Othello is at bottom a tragedy – perhaps the darkest one in the canon. When Othello says, near the play’s conclusion, that “I have loved, not wisely, but too well” he has gotten it exactly wrong. He has not loved at all; he has given himself over to fear, an environment in which love cannot live. In losing all, he has not gained insight; there is nothing left for Othello to do but follow Desdemona into the dark.
Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ethan McSweeny .. Cast: Jessika D. Williams, Mia Wurgaft (who also serves as Assistant Musical Director), Brandon Carter, John Harrell (who serves as actor-manager, text), Zoe Speas, Matthew Radford Davies, Michael Michael Manocchio, Chris Johnston (who serves as actor-manager, music), Topher Embrey, Constance Swain (who serves as fight director), Sarah Suzuki, Michael Ryan Blackwood, Rachel Louis, Nic Sanchez, Sam Saint Ours, and uncredited members of the company . Fight director: Benjamin Reed . Costume designer: Victoria Depew . Vocal coach: Nancy Anderson . Senior stage Manager: Thomas J. Coppola . Stage manager: Jessica Casanova . Produced by American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
American Shakespeare Center Safe Start 2020 Summer Season
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Live performances in Staunton, VA thru October 18. Click for tickets
Filmed version: Starts August 28 on Marquee TV, Click for tickets