Othello is so often about the black and the white, not only insofar as color, but in regard to opposition. Director Lisa Peterson does acknowledge these antitheses in her production—male versus female; illusion versus reality; good and evil and the list goes on—but she also incorporates the gray area in between these stark contrasts. It’s this gray area the characters in the play ignore, and the consequence is tragic. Variations of the words “lie” and “truth” run rampant throughout the play, and the word “honest” is spoken forty-two times, and almost every time about Iago. But at the heart of this production lies the brain, and the fact that “thinking” rather than “knowing” is a mortal mistake.
Christopher Acebo’s costume design is streamlined Jacobean, with men wearing leather doublets and long coats as opposed to the women who appear in soft flowing silks. Color plays a role, with Desdemona in white then green (perhaps to signify jealousy?), and later colors to correspond with Othello’s black and white, accented in gold. Iago appropriately wears black. Cassio’s costuming stands out from the rest, as he appears in brown throughout the production. Resident teaching artist David Thompson, enjoying his 17th season at OSF, poses an interesting interpretation of this color choice:
“In a world of stark contrasts where Desdemona is pure good, Iago is pure evil, and Othello descends from goodness to evil, Cassio (Danforth Comins) stands out as a somewhat good but very flawed character. It would have been so easy for Shakespeare to portray him as another noble and completely innocent victim of Iago’s malice. Instead Shakespeare goes out of his way to portray his crudeness and insensitivity in the scenes with Bianca (here played by Stephanie Beatriz). So for him to be the first character to walk onto a stage starkly devoid of color and be clothed in a very middle of the road light brown struck me as a purposeful choice.”
Comins (or “Dashing Dan” as I like to call him) is a bit of a stage stealer. His drunken fight scene is well-staged and chaotic, with barrels flying, swords swinging, right and left hooks and kicks. Comins is perhaps too big for this lesser role, or perhaps he is exactly perfect for playing Cassio, the swaggering Florentine with looks, charm, and excellent manners, although the poor boy can’t hold his liquor as he dashes off the stage to (thank you for coining the word Shakespeare) puke. Color becomes even more interesting when Desdemona’s dress changes to correspond with Cassio’s brown. This begs the audience to question their relationship, and also in light of Thompson’s reasoning, her flawed nature.
Set design is simple yet severe. The Elizabethan stage is much darker, with the doors and windows of its three levels bordered left and right with thin florescent strip lighting that tends to blare and blind in response to Iago’s “medicine.” At other times and in contrast, torches, soft-glowing lanterns, and even sparklers twirled during Othello and Desdemona’s charming nuptial celebration warm the stage as the attendees dance. Most intriguing, if you happen to hear what it is supposed to represent, is the platform center stage. “Scenic Designer Rachel Hauck has created a set that she says has a center split down the middle like the two halves of a brain,” explains Thompson. “When you walk into the theatre you’ll see pretty much the basic Elizabethan façade, but what is usually Tudor brown and half-timbered looks very very black and white in this particular set, and you have these two white platforms (center stage) with a black strip down the middle.”
So what does it mean to perform the bulk of this play while standing on top of a brain? Makes you think, no? This platform becomes even more interesting when considering how this production deals with Othello’s spotlighted epileptic seizure that affects the right side of his body and thus the left side of his brain. The left hemisphere of the brain deals with such things as language, listening, reading, logic and analysis—all skills Othello loses during the play. The strip down the middle is synonymous with the part of the brain called the corpus callosum (interestingly referred to as “white matter”), across which much of the interhemispheric communication of the brain is conducted. Keep in mind that cutting the corpus callosum is a procedure performed in order to reduce the symptoms of severe epilepsy. When Othello (Peter Macon) and Desdemona (Sarah Rutan) profess their love for one another in front of her father and the Senate, they stand on opposite sides of the line, face one another and join hands, Rutan stage left, Macon stage right. Later, when Othello makes Iago (Dan Donohue) his lieutenant, Macon and Donohue kneel on either side of the line, facing one another with their foreheads touching. In both instances, the line is crossed in order to connect two halves and make a whole.
In his first season at OSF, Peter Macon plays Othello as a strong, bold, noble, smart and passionate man of presence and extremes. His eloquence as well as he crumbles before our eyes as what he thinks and what he knows battle for survival. Macon’s portrayal is heartbreaking, and the pronounced contrast of character from beginning to end makes him all the more tragic. In order for Othello to be a tragic hero, we must somehow relate to him, his plight, and the (albeit poor) decisions he makes throughout the play. Macon achieves this connection right down to his very last breath, gaining both sympathy and uncomfortable empathy from the audience.
Sarah Rutan is the perfect match for Macon, bringing her own personality and presence to Desdemona. Rutan is fiery yet feminine, and strong both mentally and physically. The connection and joy between Rutan and Macon is overwhelmingly apparent in the beginning of the production. The end is not pretty; it is frightening and violent as Rutan kicks, screams, runs and literally fights for her life. Although both Othello and Desdemona are victims, neither Macon nor Rutan bring a victim mentality to the stage. It’s refreshing to see such a strong and heroic portrayal of Desdemona versus the more commonly played helpless, naïve, yet willful woman. Rather than irritate by her weakness, Rutan empowers Desdemona with her strength. Rutan sings “Willow” in a real voice with occasional cracks, yet haunting and ethereal, reminiscent of the way Kate Winslet sang in the midst of her madness as Ophelia in Branagh’s film version of Hamlet.
But neither of our tragic heroes is a match for Iago, and O! what an Iago he is. Dan Donohue has been heavy hitting at OSF for the past nine seasons, successfully tackling tragic, comedic, historic and heroic roles on his path to becoming a sought out favorite. Donohue’s manipulations are fascinating to watch and his Iago is frighteningly difficult to dislike. At one moment he paints a concerned smile on his face, encouraging Cassio to ask Desdemona to help him reinstate his lost title. Exit Comins stage left, and Donohue whips his head around and looks at the audience in dumbfounded silence as though to say “Can it really be this easy to fool a fool?” His manipulation of Roderigo (Christopher DuVal) is so simple it’s fascinating. He merely stands behind DuVal center stage, devilishly speaking into his left ear and then into his right.
As Othello fights to find out what Iago “thinks” about Cassio, Donohue and Macon engage in a duel (for exercise rather than battle) using wooden poles. During this scene, variations of the word “think” are spoken over twenty times. The two circle the stage, Othello with less strategy and more impulsive fury, their movement corresponding to the thoughts whirling around in his brain. The scene’s end is most strategic, as Donohue gains control of both poles and holds one in each hand, parallel to his body, as if to say “read between the lines.” Othello does just that, but he reads wrongly. The play turns horror film for a flash. After Roderigo stabs Cassio, Donohue is so pleased and seems to reach down into his blackened soul as he grabs a sword, drags its blade up the black line, splitting the corpus callosum while piercing his evil eyes into the audience before murdering Roderigo. It is only at this moment that Iago is portrayed as truly, powerfully, and completely evil, and the moment terrifies.
After the chaos of Desdemona’s death, and before Othello takes his own life, Othello stabs Iago. Donohue’s response is simple yet profound as he lands his right hand on top of Macon’s head. Words follow, as the mystery of the handkerchief is revealed and Othello finally recovers his eloquence in time to silence himself forever. Othello doesn’t have a Horatio to tell his story. The closest thing he has to the truth is honest Iago. The rest is silence.