Dallas — “There once lived in Venice a Moor, who was very valiant and of a handsome person.” Thus begins the Italian story by Giraldi Cinthio, the early source for Shakespeare’s Othello. That such a valiant general and honest man could be turned into murderous, jealous monster by a clever subordinate is the genius of the Bard’s most masterful tragedy.
This tale of race, racism, and otherness would seem to be quite apt of late; however, Second Thought Theatre’s production is one of the very few Othellos I have seen among a vast sea of Romeo and Juliets, Macbeths, and A Midsummer Night’s Dreams that constantly appear. Thank goodness director Joel Ferrell taps into that crucial timeliness for his electric and immersive take on the play.
Ferrell emphasizes the drama’s powerful immediacy by both costuming (design by Jennifer Ables) his actors in army fatigues, business suits and dresses, and tactical gear, and by John Flores’ sound design and selection of propulsive rock music. These modern touches place us in our own time, forcing us to reflect on recent events through the lens of a 400 year-old drama.
Ferrell’s dynamic in-the-round staging with risers, ultra-minimal set pieces (long black benches occasionally rearranged), and severely limited entrances and exits all work together to create a restrictive, yet mind-focusing, atmosphere. In fact, the actors rarely leave the performing space for long, often taking their seats among the audience, beginning their entrances and/or delivering their lines from the crowd. This device creates a sort of embedded chorus that brings the audience and the actors together in a shared investigation of the power of language, issues of inclusion, deception, and dangerous assumptions. And, by having actors mingling (not necessarily as their characters) before the show, Ferrell blurs the lines between reality and performance.
One more thing about the seating: the central staging also allows the audience to see each other. We are able to witness our own reactions and emotions reflected in the faces of our fellow members, doubling the drama unfolding before our eyes.
Tyrees Allen is the titular hero of Venice who wins the heart of Desdemona (Morgan Garrett) over the objections of his former friend and her father, Brabantio (Aaron Roberts). Roderigo (Max Hartman) receives bad love advice from his “friend” Iago (Alex Organ) who is sore from being passed over in promotion by Othello’s favorite, Cassio (Blake McNamara). Iago also hates the Moor because he suspects Othello cheated with his wife, Emilia (Jenny Ledel), so he plans to take down both Cassio and the General.
Little motivation really for one of the most hateful villains in all of literature, but we cannot help but watch the man William Hazlitt called the most extreme example of a “diseased intellectual activity, with an almost perfect indifference to moral good or evil.” Yes, he’s a slick, dastardly bastard, but it is an unnerving thing of beauty to watch him work his dark magic on everyone around him as he bends language (almost always in verse) to his needs. (A fun theater game is counting all the different meanings of “honest” in this play).
Thus, Iago is perhaps one of the most challenging roles in Shakespeare. The incomparable Organ is more than up to the task. He brings a nimble physicality to the character that matches the villain’s mental machinations, and McNamara’s Cassio provides the perfect amount of handsome, white bread gullibility for Organ to work upon.
Allen’s Othello—another difficult role—starts out slow, hunched and inward. He expresses his isolation from the others by solitary prayer and a soft touch. A transformation occurs when his infected jealousy brings him to cruel life. Allen captivates as he sweats and frets and rages to the rafters, building energy to a horrible crescendo that quickly descends to a beaten man who admits he “loved not wisely, but too well.”
Playing Desdemona is also tricky. She represents faith and virtue, and has to show grace in the face of slander. Garrett plays her a bit flat and unemotional, but I think this is necessary because Desdemona embraces her fate; she’s really a martyr more than a player here.
Danielle Pickard does super-versatile double duty as the Duchess of Venice (who sends Othello off to war), and Bianca (who sends Cassio off to her bed). At first glance, Hartman seems to be too much talent for the lovesick Roderigo, but he imbues the role with an impressive amount of foolhardy passion.
Of all the fine acting performances in this production, Ledel as Emilia may be, pound for pound, the best. It is a rare actor who can bring something new to a (minor?) part that is hundreds of years old. Ledel’s energy for the role is boundless and she couples it with a full commitment to subtlety and nuance. She brings a much-needed conscience to a drama that his little, and the marital tension between Ledel and Organ’s characters (who are husband and wife in real life) is a fascinating play-within-a-play.
Almost all of the speeches are rushed, but purposefully so, making the action even more intense. The ear wants a bit more luxuriating in the poetry, but understands the need for alacrity in this play that is as nearly as long as Hamlet but without its action and bits of comedy.
The sad fact of the matter is that Othello will probably always be timely, or perhaps the times really are a-changin’. STT’s powerful production could be one of many heralds of that hoped-for transformation, or just another example of the status quo. Time will tell.