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A Morally Ambiguous Othello Hot

Jennifer Kramer
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Written by Jennifer Kramer     March 02, 2015    
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A Morally Ambiguous Othello

Photos: Kyle Cassidy

  • Othello
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Curio Theatre Company
  • February 20 - March 14
Acting 5
Costumes 5
Sets 4
Directing 5
Overall 4

For many, the main thrust of Othello is the conflict between the noble Moor of Venice and the dastardly, motiveless villain Iago, with the latter twisting societal prejudice and personal jealousy alike into weapons to enact his revenge. In the Curio Theatre Company's production of Othello, however, director Dan Hodge approaches the play from a slightly different point of view. In his Director's Note, Hodge remarks, "In returning to this play, I am struck by how often liars tell the truth and truthful characters lie. We are presented with a morally ambiguous world, and I am thoroughly interested in relationships founded in true love and respect turning sour." The result is a production that focuses as much on the ensemble as Othello and Iago themselves, and examines the degree to which everyone involved is complicit in the tragedy.

This interpretation is anchored by Steven A. Wright as Othello. In an example of the ambiguity Hodge pursues, Othello's assertion that he is "rude" in speech and "little blessed with the soft phrase of peace" seems completely inaccurate. Wright imbues all of Othello's dialogue with rhetorical passion and a suggestion of the theatrical—but leaves it up to the audience to decide whether his assessment is the result of deliberate self-deprecation or of internalizing the biased judgments of others.

Wright's Othello begins the play a respected military man filled with familiar affection for the men under his command and passionately in love with his new wife. When Othello's new father-in-law insults his character and hurls racial epithets, Wright exudes a soldierly stoicism, the merest traces of pain and anguish on his face; when Othello breaks up Cassio and Montano's brawl in the streets, his displeasure is considerably more vocal, the righteous rage of a disappointed commander whose orders have been disobeyed. By the time Iago informs Othello of his suspicions of Desdemona's loyalty, Wright displays an anger already escaping Othello’s self-control to the extent that he almost shoots (or rather, chokes) the messenger. Wright associates Othello's descent into tragedy with the increasing damage to his psyche as his most significant personal connections are inexorably damaged.

The rest of the cast reinforces the importance of these personal connections through their nuanced presentation of their characters as dynamic individuals. Eric Scotolati's performance as Cassio quickly establishes both the friendly charm that endears him to Othello and Desdemona as well as the flaws which Iago exploits: a susceptibility to peer pressure and its fall out. Scotolati does not shy away from making Cassio a mean drunk, giving him an anger and possessiveness that foreshadow Othello's own. The flaws of Desdemona (Isa St. Clair), meanwhile, are not so much of personality as of circumstance. St. Clair portrays her as sweet and inexperienced but with a firm resolve: Desdemona evolves from initial hesitance to speak up in front of the senators and her father to an adamant defense of Othello. But St. Clair also shows the downside of this disposition, as her Desdemona is incapable of comprehending the cause or depths of Othello's jealousy while possessing the grim determination to set things right even at risk to her personal safety. This raises several alarm bells for the more worldly Emilia (Rachel Gluck), whose growing friendship with Desdemona almost in spite of her cynicism is a sweet note amidst the play's angst. Gluck gradually reveals that beneath Emilia's cool exterior lurks a longing for greater intimacy: despite her critical attitude towards Iago, Gluck plays Emilia as reluctantly invested in her marriage. She tries to garner his favor by flirtatiously presenting the stolen handkerchief to him in her garter, and despite her general disenchantment she fails to suspect Iago's involvement in her mistress' downfall.

Interestingly, Gluck and Wright have a few interactions that seem to suggest Iago had cause for his suspicions of Emilia cuckolding him with Othello—but only a few, keeping the extent of their involvement a mystery. Similarly, Iago’s physical affection for the very people whose lives he's destroying would seem to be a pretense, but this is complicated by moments where he's alone on stage. Several times, after setting into motion the next stage of his treachery, Iago collapses against the nearest support in exhaustion; during the play's denouement, after being attacked by Othello he lies nearly motionless on the ground as his plan is fulfilled by Othello’s suicide. McCann leaves it to the audience to determine which if any of Iago's affections were genuine, or if he ultimately found any satisfaction in his revenge.

Aetna Gallagher's costume design adds another metatextually amusing layer to the tangled web of Iago's motivations: the combination of a dark jerkin and ruffled shirt collar with McCann's haircut and facial hair gives Iago a distinct resemblance to the Bard himself, suggesting that Othello has been ambushed from behind the fourth wall by the literal author of his destruction. The rest of the costumes content themselves with quietly evoking the rich color schemes of Italian Renaissance paintings in fashions from the same period; the men wear doublets and jerkins in gold-trimmed browns, blacks, olives, and reds, with the ladies echoing them in lovely gowns. (If there is any misstep, it is the costuming for Emilia, who appears to be something of a time traveler in her medieval kirtle and surcoat with modern stockings and garters.) The exception to this palette is Desdemona, who stands out in a complimentary but visually striking ivory gown with teal bodice and slashes on her sleeves; the effect highlights her status as a relative newcomer to the group as well as its most innocent member.

The set design by Paul Kuhn is an even more subtle rendition of the Renaissance aesthetic; the simple thrust stage and the pillars at its corners have the appearance of sepia and black marble. But the restrained design is not without its clever details: the red velvet curtains upstage are torn away by Iago after his soliloquy at the close of Act I, revealing a set of wooden stairs disappearing into darkness. Combined with the excellent chiaroscuro lighting by Tim Martin, this setup allows for a visual reflection of the shadowy motives at work within the play, and the overall design is an excellent choice for the intimate space within the theater.

These thoughtful elements are characteristic of Hodge's approach to the production. The text is streamlined but not simplified, and Hodge combines minor characters—usually giving their lines to Montano or Bianca—to provide a greater sense of continuity. The fight scenes are quick, brutal, and eschew the flourishes of some kinds of stage-fighting (though they occasionally suffer from some obvious pulled punches). With the excellent work by the cast, the ambiguity Hodge cultivates increases the tension as the characters' inner darknesses are presented with beautiful clarity.

The result is a steadily-paced production that perfectly synthesizes text, acting, and stagecraft, culminating in the play’s final scene. Desdemona lies sleeping on the darkened stage, while Othello emerges from the shadows and descends the stairs holding a candle. Their final confrontation and Desdemona's murder, still all too visible to the audience, take place lit by that single source. Othello extinguishes it with his utterance of "I have no wife": an echo of his earlier deliberation about putting out Desdemona's light. The ambiguities of thought and motive, of racism, jealousy, and hatred, come to an end with this irrevocable act; for the rest of the scene the stage is flooded with light as the truth is revealed. The strength of the Curio's production of Othello is its acknowledgement that, like the tragedies of our own times, the origins are many and the consequences will continue to be felt by all.

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