“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.