Othello has always fascinated audiences because it entices us with an intimate glimpse into deep psychological torment. The transformation of the titular character terrifies, and Jason Bowen’s portrayal of Othello is chilling. Performed in the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of Othello is a tour de force of betrayal and anguish. At times the dialogue falters, but the forceful performances of Othello, Desdemona and Emilia engage the audience throughout.
Jason Bowen is captivating as Othello, and his transformation is apparent. His initial excess of joy and good fortune exudes jolliness, but the trembling, violent and unstable man he becomes is almost unrecognizable from his confident and love struck beginning. Bowen’s Othello is “all in all in spleen” swayed from jubilance to physical illness by Iago’s grating hints of treachery. Despite his crises of jealousy, the key to Bowen’s fabulous performance is in his eyes, where the audience can see madness brewing.
Brooke Hardman’s enduring love as Desdemona is beautiful and terrible to watch, and her quiet grief is palpable. Overcome with her own nervous energy, it chills the audience as she prepares her deathbed with her wedding sheets, singing a sweet and mournful song that we know is really a lament. The scene is enchanting, and the poignant sisterly love between Emilia and Desdemona is heartbreaking. Paula Langton’s performance as Emilia is the most gut wrenching and identifiable on the stage. A modern audience who cannot identify with jealousy-triggered epileptic fits and who rightly sees a love outlasting violence as domestic abuse will recognize themselves in Emilia’s cynicism and weary unrequited love. She is a breath of fresh air in extremes of love and hate, sex and murder. And for all her bitterness, she is completely caught off guard by the plot that claims everything she cares about, including what little opinion she has of her husband. Langton captivates.
Though the victims of Iago’s plots give tender and affecting performances, Ken Cheeseman’s portrayal of Iago leaves much to be desired. Cheeseman’s Iago is lanky and ridiculous with exaggerated gesticulations, and he practically winks at the audience during every scene of deception. This tone better fits a Fool: witty and cunning, yet ridiculous. Iago’s brazen lies serve as comic relief, but Cheeseman leaves the audience yearning for a villain. The whole play is saturated with dramatic irony, and the audience is privy to all of Iago’s conniving tricks. This tension does not need to be emphasized by Cheeseman treating every lie like an aside. Repetition in the script already fulfills this role, including dozens of proclamations of “Honest Iago.” The exchanges would be more chilling and authentic if we, like the decent people turned to puppets by his devices, were drawn in by Iago’s wit. Sound designer G.W. Rodriguez doesn’t help Cheeseman’s serious moments. Music acceptably accompanies scene transitions, but it overshadows Iago’s soliloquies, with a foreboding soundtrack unnecessarily underscoring his evil plots. Rather than enhance the dread in these scenes, this approach comes off as a sloppy cheesy device.
According to the program this production is set in the near future, but lighting designer Annie Wiegand goes a bit far with her futuristic vision—a bizarre set piece constructed of wire and neon blue tube lighting, marking a kind of altar that illuminates as Iago’s plots progress. The best part of the set design is the use of the balcony levels. Various characters climb and vault ladders surrounding the audience during scenes of violence and revelry. Nancy Leary’s costume design is simple but effective in reflecting this tension, with Iago’s garb reminiscent of an American WWII fighter pilot. Not exactly sure this screams “near future” however.
Director Judy Braha notes in the program that setting the play in the future allows the script to explore the “ramifications of race, gender and power” in a setting far from Shakespeare’s England. The racial undertones in this play are interestingly portrayed by Braha but are overshadowed by gender relations. Bowen is not the only person of color in this production, and even as Bobbie Steinbach’s Brabantia spits racist epithets at him, we observe the diversity of her security force. Could his offense be his maleness? It seems possible. Women occupy the traditionally male power roles: Paula Langton plays the Duke, all senators are female, and most of the military force is female. Othello’s power struggle over his marriage is with Desdemona’s mother—a battle she loses.
Meanwhile, though female actors outnumber the men in this production, it is the male powerhouses who drive the agency. Despite the appearance of a matriarchal system, it is Iago’s words that whip all of Cyprus into a frenzy, and it is the women who watch helplessly as Othello escapes the punishment of the state by suicide. Braha successfully transforms the prejudices prominent in the script into a new and complex consideration of gender and race. The production is a racy, emotional experience, and the audience is left reeling with what Artistic Director Allyn Burrows calls “tectonic shifts in human nature”—drastic changes we hope will never touch our lives.
Othello runs March 10-April 4, 2010 at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, 85 West Newton Street, south End, Boston MA 02118. For more information, visit http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/.