Lies, deceit, treachery and murder. No, I’m not talking about the presidential primaries, but about this weekend’s performance of “Othello.” As one of the Dramat’s experimental shows, this Shakesperean tragedy attempts to meld timeless tale and modern sensibility, succeeding in its pursuits thanks to a talented ensemble and carefully nuanced direction.
I am the first to admit that Shakespeare can be far from entertaining. Done well, the Bard’s plays are humanity personified. Done badly, and I’d rather sign up for a root canal. Thankfully, “Othello” leans much more towards heartache than toothache.
Director Eli Draper ’04 utilizes a black and white, geometrically simple set. A chain link fence makes up the background, and the characters’ costumes are decidedly ambiguous, with both men and women wearing modern attire. Despite these contemporary touches, the text of the play remains virtually untouched. The juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory elements allows the characters to attack the text with certain boldness, diminishing the artifice that one often finds in Shakespeare productions. In this way, the show becomes extremely engaging despite its three and a half hour running time.
As the anything but “honest Iago,” Ian Lowe ’04 is the central force that drives much of the play. Iago, angry with Othello for giving the spot of lieutenant to the less-experienced Michael Cassio (Kendrick Strauch ’05), vows to destroy the Moor. Constantly on stage for the first half of the production, Lowe is leprechaunish in his delight at deception. When he convinces the petulant Roderigo, the perfectly simpering Patrick Knighton ’05, to tell Brabantio (David Laufgraben ’04) of his daughter Desdemona’s marriage to the Moor, the audience is almost rooting for Iago. Lowe’s droll repartee and ironic comments are a source of energy for the show, and his banter with Knighton provides some humorous moments in an otherwise tense production.
Othello, played by Chris Jacobi ’04, is not at first the commanding figure that one would expect. In fact, his Othello starts out as the quintessential young man, too idealistic and too impressionable for his own good. Though this may seem a downfall at first, Jacobi’s transformation later on in the show is all the more powerful because of his earlier ease. His tortured cry when Iago hints at Desdemona’s infidelity is a wrenching affirmation of the growth he has undergone as a character: “He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stolen, Let him not know ‘t, and he ‘s not robb’d at all.” Though robbed of peace of mind, Jacobi’s Othello gains powerful depth and menacing rage.
As Michael Cassio, Stauch is the playful foil to Othello’s mounting fury. With his alleged infidelity, flirtation with prostitute Bianca (Lacey Gattis ’07), and drunken fights Cassio is easily the most colorful character of “Othello.” Stauch manages to come across as both innocent and guilty, and makes it a rather charming combination.
Desdemona, played by Claire Siebers ’07, is ultimately one of the most compelling characters of the piece, both because of her innocence on the charge of infidelity and Siebers’ convincing affection for Othello. In an understated way, she creates for Desdemona a place of immutable dignity. Ironically, it is her silence and gracious defense of Othello’s actions that eventually indict him. When her servant Emilia (Ira Dubey ’05) intervenes, the truth eventually comes out, bringing death to all but Michael Cassio. The truth, rather than vindicate Othello’s actions, only serves to prove one point: in a testosterone battle among nobles, the dead women prove to be the only ones with nobility.
Ultimately, in a show about betrayal, there is a great deal of solidarity. Draper’s sense of atmospheric integrity combined with such an ensemble provides an interesting and unique performance of one of the world’s greatest tragedies.
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