Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
As I watched the current production of Othello at Shakespeare & Company, I was struck by what a clean play it is. I don’t mean that it isn’t bawdy, because it is very much so, and it certainly racks up a pile of dead bodies by the final curtain. I mean that Shakespeare constructed it very simply and neatly. Unlike many of the Bard’s other plays, both greater and lesser, which teem with sub-plots, fools, and mechanicals, Othello has just one, powerful through story. And that is all it needs.
We’ve all heard the slang phrase KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Well, director Tony Simotes ain’t stupid. Knowing he is staging one of Shakespeare’s best plays, he basically clears the way for an astonishing cast to tell the story.
Simotes was inspired by the artwork of Spaniard Francisco Goya (1746-1828) and he sets the play in that period, but only visually. Simotes and his design team - Yoshi Tanokura, sets, Les Dickert, light, and Gail Brassard, costumes – have developed a strong sense of time and place as well as a striking resemblance to Goya’s works. Everything about this production is clean and cruel. Simotes has wisely elected to dispense with any stage blood because the horror of each death is intense enough without the added gore.
At the outset Othello (John Douglas Thompson) is at the height of his powers. He is a successful General in the Venetian army. Thompson looks about 35, strong and virile. He is happy and secure in his success. And he has just won the hand of the beautiful, intelligent and kind Desdemona (Merritt Janson), daughter of Venetian Senator named Brabantio (Walton Wilson). Daddy doesn’t approve of the marriage because Othello is a black man, and he has entertained a proposal for Desdemona from the young, rich, and white Roderigo (Ryan Winkles), but he finally gives his blessing when he sees how happy the young couple are and how honestly Othello has won Desdemona’s love.
Roderigo comes to Iago (Michael Hammond), Othello’s Ancient and advisor, and asks his help in wooing Desdemona. Iago hates his leader because he feels he has been overlooked for a promotion in favor of Michael Cassio (LeRoy McClain) and because he suspects that Othello has cuckolded him with his wife Emilia (Kristin Wold), and so he is only too happy to hatch a plan that will undo Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio all – Roderigo is merely an means to an end.
Othello takes off to the Ottoman Wars, and Desdemona packs to follow him. There he has another stunning military victory. And just before Desdemona arrives, Iago plants the deadly seed of doubt in Othello’s mind – Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with Cassio. From there on all he has to do is keep feeding Othello’s jealousy and insecurity and let the poison work. We all know how it ends.
Shakespeare & Company stalwarts Jonathan Croy, who plays Desdemona’s cousin Lodovico and a soldier, and Michael F. Toomey, who plays Montano, a Senator, and a soldier, are two of the most over qualified extras to grace this or any other stage. Both are amply occupied this season playing leading roles in the energetic Feydeau farce The Ladies Man so these small roles must feel like little vacations for these two actors.
Shakespeare tells us that Othello and Iago are of an age – late twenties – but Simotes has cast the silver-haired Hammond, a man clearly old enough to be Desdemona’s father, as Iago. In the earlier stories on which Shakespeare based his work Iago’s motive is sexual jealousy. He loves Desdemona and wants her for himself. Obvious racial issues are involved in this. But Shakespeare dispensed with that motive, and so having an older actor play Iago is an interesting concept. Whether or not Iago loves or lusts after Desdemona, there are reasons older men are sexually jealous of younger men for reasons that have nothing to do with coveting their women. Othello has it all and, at his age, Iago, never will. A man who feels that his own life has been wasted and is nearing its end (50 was a fairly advanced age in Elizabethan times) has much less to lose than a young and ambition fellow. And Iago does throw everything he has away. He physically murders his wife and Roderigo, and he is clearly responsible for the murder of Desdemona and the suicide of Othello, as well as the wounding of Cassio. He does not attempt to deny or cover up any of his crimes, and Lodovico makes it perfectly clear that justice will be done and Iago has not much longer to live. He doesn’t care. His life has been justified in the destruction of others.
The night I attended there were a few laughs to be had – all at times when other characters said things like “Good Iago” “Kind Iago” “Honest Iago.” Ha! While Shakespeare lets the audience in on every slimy trick and duplicitous turn in Iago’s brain, the rest of the characters remain completely duped until well into Act V.
Another interesting casting choice here is having Cassio played by a black man. In most stagings of Othello we see the black man protecting his white wife from the encroachments of white men – Roderigo, Cassio, Iago – who see her as more rightfully theirs than his by dint of race. Here Cassio is Othello’s racial equal, and it makes perfect sense that, if she would marry outside her race, that she would likewise take a lover.
People think that it is the racial aspects of Othello that make it hard for modern audiences to stomach, but I think it is the misogyny that is unpalatable. Othello is a successful black man. He has made it to the top of his profession and married well. By all accounts he is well liked by the general populous, it is just Iago who hates him, and then, as stated above, for reasons of sexual jealousy rather than any racial hatred. Othello’s racial otherness makes it easier for Iago to hate him, but it is not his motivation.
But the way women are treated is appalling. They are owned property, mere chattel beholden to men for their lives and livelihood. In the Bible, when Joseph learns that his fiancé, Mary, is pregnant, he “resolves to quietly put her away.” When Othello is duped into thinking that his wife gave a handkerchief, albeit one of great sentimental value, to another man, he resolves to kill her. Women’s status had obviously gone downhill, not up, in the 1600 odd years between those two stories. When Emilia disobeys Iago and speaks out of turn, he slits her throat in full view of an assembled crowd who, while they are appalled by his action, do nothing because they have no right to interfere. By law, a husband may do as he pleases with his wife. Desdemona knows this. Emilia knows this. And certainly Bianca (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), the prostitute, knows this.
Bianca, a role that is cut in many productions, is the companion of Cassio. As an unmarried business woman, she is theoretically the most vulnerable of the three women in the play, but it is her very unmarried status that finds her alive at the final curtain while Desdemona and Emilia lie dead.
In my day job as a church secretary, I recently had an impassioned phone call from a woman very, very upset by the recent fatal beating of a wife by her husband in North Adams. What could be done to stop this violence? What a question! A woman is still statistically much more likely to be murdered by the man she is married to or intimately involved with than by anyone else. Men still use murder as an alternative to divorce and abortion, both of which are now legal. What can be done? I don’t know. Othello has been out there as a cautionary tale for more than four hundred years now. When will someone hear Desdemona’s pleas instead of Iago's lies?
The Shakespeare and Company production of Othello runs in repertory through August 30 in the Founders' Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs three hours and is suitable for older teens (16 and up) and adults.
Founders’ is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings run at 8:00 p.m. and in the afternoons at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $60. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008