2/6/2021     OTHELLO                                        Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse


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An interesting thing happened on my way to this screening of Othello, performed on the stage of the Shakespeare Tavern and brought to us in a (seemingly) continuous one-shot video.  I was sent a link to a scholarly article on Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (*), focusing on the "patrilinear, primogenitural, and patriarchal” nature of family life in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  The article had a lot to say about Othello, particularly Othello’s “sin” against Brabantio -- the theft of property, to wit, Desdemona.  It was a breaking of the traditional ritualistic transition between a woman’s father and her husband.


So, when we see the opening scene with Roderigo and Iago alerting Brabantio of the “theft,” I was inclined to put a decidedly “period” spin on the conflict – Brabantio is not incensed at the miscegenation of the match, but at the sheer effrontery of this foreign, alien man making a mockery of his rites (and dues) as a father.  And the production took care to preserve that “reading,” making it clear that the conflict could only be resolved through the intercession of the Duke, the “political father,” as it were.  That the Duke was played by a woman only served to deepen the ironic contemporary “spin” on a centuries-old ethos.


Director O’Neil Delapenha has even more concepts that appeal to historical irony – a young-appearing Brabantio, a BIPOC Duke and Cassio, even an Othello who occasionally displays (slightly) effeminate mannerisms and expressions.  That these innovations ALL serve the story in unexpected ways, all make it one of the more intriguing Othello’s I have seen,


If you didn’t know, Othello is the story of gaslighting, of power, of ritual, of war, of the dark side of the “patrilinear, primogenitural, and patriarchal” family model of the era.  And, more than anything else, it is a story of jealousies -- jealousies of rivals, of wives, of friends, of husbands, of richer and lesser “snipes” who can be used “for sport and profit.”


And, in this production, it is a powerful and affecting tragedy, a finely-acted journey into the brutal result of intentional dis-information, if you’ll forgive the modern allusion.


Othello, the Moorish general of Venice,  has stolen away Desdemona from her father, Brabantio, and married her.  Before the rite can be consummated, he is called off to do battle with the invading Turks, leaving his new wife in the care of Iago, his ensign and Emilia, Iago’s wife.  Iago, though, vehemently “hates the Moor,” jealous over the advancement of a rival, or because of racism and “Moor-o-phobia,” or suspicious of Othello and Emilia, or just because … reasons.  Iago’s true motivations are merely suggested, not overtly stated, and have been the subject of more than a little scholarly (and theatrical) debate.  Iago sets in motion a plot to make Othello doubt Desdemona’s faithfulness, awakening that “green-eyed monster” of jealousy and sending events spinning to the inevitable tragic conclusion.


To put it in other words, Iago wins.  This is really his story.  The soliloquies are all his.  The plotting is all his.  And actor Sean Kelley’s victorious smile at the conclusion, despite what lies in store in Venice’s torture chambers, is all you really need to know.  He may be doomed, but he beat the hated Moor!  And, in spite of his wounds, he deserves a “victory lap!”  Mr. Kelley is by far the best Iago I’ve seen on local stages.


In other roles, Charlie Thomas is an imposing figure as Othello.  Yes, he may stumble on a word or two, he may have a (very) few fey mannerisms, but he is every inch the manly warrior, the domineering husband, the strict commander.  J.L. Reed as Cassio fades into the background a bit at the start, but as he becomes embroiled in Iago’s machinations, his true strength comes to the fore.  As Desdemona, Patty de la Garza fulfills the promise she showed in last year’s G.E.T. Family Stages season, giving us a Desdemona so young, so spirited, and far too innocent for the political minefield she is doomed to traverse.  In other roles, Tavern regular Nick Faircloth is quite engaging as Roderigo, Mary Ruth Ralston makes for a sternly affectionate (and righteously vengeful) Emilia, Chris Hecke is fine (if perhaps too young) as Brabantio, and Destiny Freeman and Kati Grace Brown play multiple roles (and genders) quite well indeed.


As to the filming, the continuous “shot” creates a wonderful “live theatre” ambience, despite weak sound for more distant actors, and manages to create more than a few wonderful visual compositions, particularly the last image of a victoriously grinning Iago triumphant in front all the bodies of {Spoiler Alert, but c’mon, we all know people die at the end of tragedies}.


Another filmed production, All’s Well That End Well, with the same cast will be available in March, and, based on the quality of Othello, it is a broadcast to anticipate.


This is an Othello that was planned wisely, pandemic restrictions considered, and it was executed very well indeed.


--  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #Othello   #ShakespeareTavern)


(*) Boose, Lynda E., “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare,” JSTOR, MLA Library