“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy…” the theoretical green-eyed monster is one of the many villains of Othello, a story that does not do the male gender any favors. This classic Shakespeare tragedy just opened in a new production at A Noise Within that sets the story in present day, a choice that ultimately makes the already dated aspects of the story seem even more dated.
Othello (Wayne T. Carr) is the general of the Venetian army, and newly married to Desdemona (Angela Gulner), the daughter of an important local politician. When Iago (Michael Manuel), one of Othello’s soldiers and closest friends, loses out on a promotion to Cassio (Brian Henderson), he becomes hell-bent on destroying Othello’s life. He concocts a scheme to convince Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him, the results of which are, of course, disastrous.
Director Jessica Kubzansky’s artistic vision for this production is specific and clear. The cast wears modern fatigues and clothing, and at least one iPhone is seen at an important moment in the plot. This is far from the first adaptation to take the story into a more modern era—some may remember the 2001 movie O, a very loose retelling that took place in the world of high school sports. But when using Shakespeare’s original text, imagining the story in the context of the 21st century becomes difficult and occasionally nonsensical.
Before I get to the larger problems with Shakespeare’s text and performing it in modern times, it is important to note that this production does a great job of balancing the comedic and tragic moments in the story. Jeremy Rabb is a standout as the foolish Roderigo, who is crushing on Desdemona and stupidly believes Iago has his best interests at heart. Henderson is also very entertaining as Cassio, whose undying loyalty makes him one of the most consistent and sympathetic characters in the piece.
Race has always been a major theme in Othello. Shakespeare describes the titular character as “a black Moor,” and the fact that he is regarded as an “other” plays a major role in the plot and character dynamics. Desdemona’s parents vehemently disapprove of her marriage for this reason. Thankfully, times have changed since this play was written and first performed. For many years, the role of Othello was typically played by a white actor in some form of blackface—in fact, this was the norm up until the mid twentieth century, which is rather horrifying. There are only a few specific references in the text to the color of Othello’s skin, and many are vague enough that they could be open to interpretation, particularly if theatergoers in the 1600s had never encountered Moors and did not know they were of African descent. In this context, it’s likely some audience members interpreted Othello as someone who was “dark” in a more symbolic way, as a representation of evil and poor intentions.
Of course, modern racial contexts remove essentially all of that ambiguity—ambiguity that was hardly helping matters to begin with. Nowadays, including in this production at A Noise Within, Othello is almost always played by a black actor, and the optics of watching a black man smother a white woman to death are jarring and problematic. Considering the play from a 21st century mindset, things begin to take on a new form—Iago’s plot forces Othello, who starts the play as a highly successful, honest man, to essentially live out a self-fulfilling prophecy and become a harmful, violent stereotype. Various recent productions have tried to mitigate this issue in different ways. In 1997, white actor Patrick Stewart played Othello in a cast that was otherwise all black, and in 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented the first production with black actors playing both Othello and Iago. In my opinion, both of these choices only make the problem ten times worse—deciding to make the only character in the play who is more villainous and murderous than Othello also black feels like doubling down on harmful stereotypes, and stripping away Othello’s blackness entirely for an interpretation that makes being white the “other” comes with copious issues of its own. Put simply, the racial themes that are ingrained in the DNA of Othello are dated and troubling, especially given the way the story ends.
Unsurprisingly, the themes in this play are also highly problematic for women. In one memorable scene, Othello slaps Desdemona across the face in front of a room full of people. She is stunned, having no idea why he would do such a thing, and flees, hurt and embarrassed. But not thirty seconds later Othello calls for her, and she literally comes running, saying “yes, my lord?” Everything about Gulner’s Desdemona feels so modern, from the way she carries herself with poise and confidence to her stylish, colorful wardrobe that it is especially cringeworthy to watch her cave so quickly to this physical abuse and eventually meet her demise the way she does. It is a good thing that watching a woman take abuse without protest feels immediately difficult to believe in 2019, but it also casts doubt over the entire story, which does not truly work or make sense in a modern context. All of that is to say that perhaps Othello is a piece of art, like others I have written about before, that would be better off left in the past.
Othello runs at A Noise Within through April 28th. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.
4 thoughts on “Theater Review: Othello at A Noise Within”
No, Erin, Shakespeare’s Othello isn’t dated. It’s your narrow point of view that’s the problem. Apparently you like art that confirms what you already think. Shakespeare remains a dangerous and provocative writer and the filters on your vision are limiting your ability to experience what’s in front of you, not the best quality in a theater reviewer.
As a theater reviewer, my job is to experience what’s in front of me and give my opinion, which is what I have done here. You are entitled to your own opinion as well.
Othello is as real today as it was in the 1600s and a very relevant work of the Bard- Seems you may not be in touch with the vast level of abuse women in 2019 both endure and tollerate behind closed doors- ( to address your comment below ) Check present day stats* ( See the Good Wife who most likely Glen Close will win Best Actress tomorrow ) Women have and continue to be abused in various forms taking no prisoners across all socio economic- creed and ethnicity in Western and Third Worlds to greater and lesser degrees – this important truth would be a great driving force within Othello rather than cast doubt , on the contrary this only serves to highlight something very real and important that today there is a long long way to go in the world of abuse of women and what they will tollerate out of fear, and this reality is okay as long as we don’t minimize such truths and pretend they don’t exist.
****It is a good thing that watching a woman take abuse without protest feels immediately difficult to believe in 2019, but it also casts doubt over the entire story, which does not truly work or make sense in a modern context. ****
I read this review a while ago and I came back because I felt compelled to address a couple of the big problems I had with it. The first is “…Othello is almost always played by a black actor, and the optics of watching a black man smother a white woman to death are jarring and problematic.” This statement is jarring and problematic. Othello’s blackness is used as a vehicle for conflict in the beginning, and as a source of insecurity for Othello himself. Shakespeare wrote the character in a way that makes us want to root for him and watching Iago take advantage of those insecurities, culminating in the murder of his wife, is part of the tragedy. Now, I saw this production and at that point in the play, all I saw was a well-respected, highly decorated, competent leader and man smother his wife. A wife whom he, not all that long ago, was absolutely wild for. If by the time you get to the death scene and all you see a “black man smother a white woman”, you have really missed the point. Second, you need more specificity. I am referring to “…stripping away Othello’s blackness entirely for an interpretation that makes being white the “other” comes with copious issues of its own.” Copious is a word rife with possibilities, but because you don’t specify what “copious issues” you are referring to, a reader is left to interpret your meaning or feeling on their own. When I first read this statement, I stripped away the unimportant parts and was left with, “an interpretation that makes being white the “other” comes with…issues…” The suggestion is that a white person being labelled as the other is somehow wrong, and throwing “copious” in there, just means it is wrong on so many levels, which in and of itself is…wrong. Obviously, I don’t know what your intentions were for this statement and that is why I say you need to be specific. I choose not to get offended by this because opinions are opinions, but as a black woman reading this, I can say that if someone were to be offended, I could understand how. A third minor thing, is that the character of Othello is actually written in a way that makes the audience very sympathetic towards him, so the fact that all you seemed to see was a “villainous and murderous” Othello tells me that you had some very strong feelings about the play and the character before you saw it. Not justifying his actions of course, but there is more to his character than villainy.
The beauty of classical theater is that the themes that run strong in them are as relevant now as they were then. I believe the three main themes of Othello to be race, being uncomfortable around others unlike you and feeling insecure about the color of your skin, jealousy over what others have that you feel should be yours and the duplicity of what you show people vs who you truly are. Every single one of those topics could be a part of our daily conversations in this day and age. As a reader reading this review, it sounds like you are someone who is not a fan of classical theater, or maybe just classical theater set in modern times and that you went into this play with your prejudices against the story already in place. Which is fine, of course, because everyone is allowed their preferences except that it prevented you from talking about what I, as a reader, really wanted to know. How was the production? The lighting? The set? How competent were the actors? The skill of the director? What kind of crowd was there watching with you? In this whole review, we get one tiny paragraph about the actual production in between you telling us all of the problems you have with the story of Othello. I am not sure what your intent with that was, but if someone who really liked the story came across this review, they wouldn’t be able to use it to answer the most basic question all reviews should attempt to answer (according to a teacher of mine) which is, is this play worth the price of the ticket?