The plot of Othello is simple enough. An army general, Othello, a Moor, marries above his social station and outside his race. Also, he has chosen a young lieutenant, Michael Cassio, as his second-in-command. The long-time enlisted man, Iago, who expected to receive the promotion is jealous of the lieutenant and suspects both him and Othello of making whoopee with his own wife, Emilia.
He’s paranoid that way. He determines to drive the general into a jealous frenzy which he does, and the general kills his own beloved wife, Desdemona, and when he learns he was lied to, he kills himself too. The bad guy is caught and promised all kinds of nasty retribution involving torture and such, and the Dudley Doright lieutenant Cassio comes out smelling like a rose.
But, the execution of that plot is a tough sell, and fortunately, director Bruce Longworth and his excellent cast are up to it. This is the first production I’ve seen where I believed that Othello’s actions weren’t both precipitous and preposterous, and I think we have Longworth’s pacing and Justin Blanchard’s (Iago) and Billy Eugene Jones’ (Othello) performances to thank for that. At first, the show moves along at a brisk clip with Othello’s elopement, his father-in-law Brabantio’s (Whit Reichert) demanding Othello be punished by the Venetian court, which is denied because Turkey is gearing up for battle against Italy over the control of the Island of Cyprus (here in 1912 instead of Shakespeare’s original time). The newlyweds head off to cross the sea for Othello to lead the troops in battle, but high winds sink the enemy fleets. War is thus averted and Othello is named governor-to-be of Cyprus. But the last line Brabantio speaks to Othello before they depart plant the first seeds of doubt, as he tells the Moor to watch her carefully because“[S]he has deceived her father and may thee.”
At the time, those words seem to be just the curse of an angry parent, but they come to fruition though Iago, though he, not Desdemona, is the one to deceive Othello. Michael Cassio (Joshua Thomas) has assumed the position at Othello’s right hand, and Iago doesn’t like it one little bit. We know how he feels as soon as we see him alone when he flatly states: “I hate the Moor.” He natters on about how “[Othello] has done my office between my sheets,” and such, but his jealousy of Cassio is equally destructive. Michael is everything is Iago is not, educated, tall and handsome, courtly, and high born. But Iago is a man’s man and is popular with his fellow sailors, an advantage he uses to get Cassio drunk because the latter’s tragic flaw is that he cannot handle his liquor. A fight with Montano (Christopher Hickey, current governor of Cyprus) ensues, and Othello comes down to settle everybody’s hash. Cassio is stripped of his rank as punishment.
On Iago’s advice, the obviously naïve Cassio goes to Desdemona (Heather Wood) to ask her to intercede for him, which she does, ad nauseum. But here, Wood and Jones have been directed to play the nagging in various keys—at first, she and Othello laugh about it, but she doesn’t understand that as time goes on, all she’s doing with this incessant Cassio prattle is reinforcing the lies Iago is meting out to Othello in small servings leavened with a whole lot of “or I could be wrong,” playing push-me-pull-you as his general becomes the mouse to Iago’s cat. Naturally, Othello takes these demurrals as further proof of the man’s “honesty,” a word much used and abused throughout the play. He believes Desdemona is “honest,” but he also believes she is not, and it seems like she ought to get the hint and shut up about Michael once her husband slaps her around and berates her, but no. She is, to this extent, responsible for her own fate, since some Venetian courtiers are present, so help was at hand.
Iago wants his wife, Emilia (Kim Stauffer) who is Desdemona’s maid, to fetch him a particular handkerchief. When Desdemona drops it, Emilia does bring it to her husband because, despite his nasty nature, she wants to please him. She doesn’t know it has any particular meaning, but Iago does. It was Othello’s first gift to Desdemona, and Iago has an idea of how he can use it by planting it on Cassio, who passes it on to his mistress, Bianca (Cherie Corinne Rice). Obviously, Iago has some luck on his side because once that happens, he’s able to get Othello to demand the hanky from his wife. Desdemona doesn’t want him to know she’s lost it, so she dodges his questions. Still, this isn’t the “ocular proof” Othello, now literally epileptic with rage, demands. So Iago sets Cassio up to talk about Bianca but allows the hidden Othello to believe he’s bragging and joking about Desdemona. And thus, the trap is sprung. And while “honest” Iago hasn’t set out to destroy everyone, himself included; in the end, he accepts collateral damage as inevitable and shows no remorse.
As we go deeper into the play, I began to feel it dragging in spots, but perhaps necessarily so. By making Othello’s descent into the maw of the green-eyed monster relatively leisurely, the audience begins to see the outcome as less illogical and even perhaps, as it should be in tragedy, inevitable. Much depends on a believable Iago, and Blanchard goes above and beyond the call of duty in his perfectly calibrated portrayal. His words are his weapon, and his body maintains an erect stillness, as if he is always at attention in the military sense, when he’s talking to Othello. Nothing comes from his body but the venomous words. Jones is all over the place as a man in love who never has been so before, though he is no longer young; is living among people who are foreign to him as a black African; and he simply doesn’t trust his good fortune. Ironically, he even believes he is “rude of speech,” when it was, in fact, HIS words that wooed and won Desdemona.
Wood and Stauffer also give powerhouse performances, the former as a woman so innocent she can’t believe there are women who commit adultery at all, and the latter so jaded as to be able to explain to her mistress that not only do they exist, but can give the reasons for such actions. We root for Emilia, in a way, and hope that her words come from her own experience. She is also the engine of Othello’s undoing when she convinces him that he has fatally misjudged his now-dead wife.
Thomas has a tougher part to play than we might think because Cassio, while he’s all that and a side of fries, is a dim bulb. But the actor has to sell him as heroic, nonetheless and Thomas does. The rest of the cast are equally worthy of their characters, whether their time on stage is very short (Joneal Joplin as the Duke; Whit Reichert as Brabantio and the aforementioned Hickey) or longer, Jerry Vogel as Ludovico, a nobleman from Venice and Desdemona’s cousin and especially Rudi Utter as Roderigo, spurned by Desdemona in the past but still in love with her. He is Othello’s partner in crime, his financial backer and his unwitting pawn. He, with Iago, also brings most of what comedy there is in the show.
The set is comprised of three towers with a green (the color of jealousy again) staircase running up and down two sides and meeting at a platform about halfway up. There are several doors that represent the entrances and exits to both the Venetian and Cypriot settings. The cleverest touch is gears in patterns both inside and around the set, representing Iago’s machinations, and they are lighted for mood and character: Green when the jealousy is being fed; red when the rage erupts; blue for Desdemona. Robbie Jones and John Wylie are responsible for the scenic and lighting design. Lou Bird has come up with visually striking costumes, and Rusty Wandall’s sound is always appropriate to the various moods.
A case can be made for Othello being a play about the power of language, and possibly this is the way Longworth reads it because he showcases all the important speeches by minimizing the people in the scenes and any extraneous actor business, and clearly much attention has been paid to diction, always important in Shakespeare, but especially evident here. I think it is the precisely right interpretation for one key reason: I now see the real possibility that Iago was so convincing that he convinced even himself of his own “honesty.” And his last words are a denial to ever again “speak word.”
NOTE: The indispensable ensemble actors not mentioned above include Michael Fariss, Jared Lotz, Kevin Mimms, Chauncy Thomas, Eric Dean White, and Pete Winfrey.
Othello runs through June 17 at the Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park. Admission is free, and there are jugglers, musicians, a condensed version of the play, etc., plus food and drink available for purchase or you can bring your own. The festivities start at 6:30 and the play at 8 p.m. For information, visit sfstl.com. Andrea Braun also reviews for 88.1 KDHX St. Louis.
BY ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT
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