Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tony Simotes.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Reputation, reputation, reputation. . .I have lost the immortal part of myself..."
In the directorís notes for this production lies the secret to what is presented here at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts: "Shakespeare created a story that was compelling to audiences then and certainly even more so for us now, as our society is being challenged by a historic run for high office. Love, power, and human frailty. Add race, hatred, sexism, jealousy, war on a foreign soil to the mix and Othello speaks to America on a level that is both necessary and immediate." Taking all of that into consideration, Simotes has gone beyond the Actors Equity concept of color-blind casting and brought us a "them" vs. "us" edition of this most dramatic and forceful play. In this brilliantly acted production two men of color are pitted against an army of white folks and the outcome of the play is one of great uncertainty where loyalty is concerned.
Iago resents the fact that the post of lieutenant to the newly appointed military governor of Cyprus has been given to Cassio and not to himself. He sets up a long-winded revenge plot meant to hurt and disgrace both the governor, Othello, and his next in command, Cassio. He has his wife, Emilia, steal a gift handkerchief from Othelloís wife Desdemona and he plants the purloined item in Cassioís quarters and sets in motion the anger and jealousy that can be aroused in a man too much in love with his own wife. This simple act leads to unspeakable tragedy.
In Simotes world both Othello and Cassio are black men, exotic and erotic and truly colorful figures in their 1820's uniforms, fine figures with foreign accents and mannerisms. Iago, Desdemona and Emilia, as well as every other person on stage, is white, but not merely white, pure white, high white, common white. As the action begins to destroy both the dark men the play takes on a highly tinged sensibility, one that Shakespeare probably never considered. There has always been the prejudice against the black Othello marrying the white Desdemona, but here the bias is overwhelming as the angry white man stymied in his career by one black man through the actions of another black man brings them both down before his own actions are discovered and he destroys himself as well.
Doubling the image in a world where we are supposed to be color-blind when it comes to casting makes that audience acceptance impossible. Perhaps if Othello had been played by an Oriental or an Occidental actor instead of a black actor the reaction would be different, but Othello is always played by a man of color. He is never cast against that stereotype. Perhaps if Iago had also been an African-American actor the tensions would be seen as different, but that is also never the case. It is the incidental addition of a dark skinned Cassio that makes the difference in the here and now.
Cassio, in this instance, is played by the very talented LeRoy McClain who last season made his mark in two roles including the extremely funny drunk waiter in "Rough Crossing." Here, playing his romantic scenes opposite the erotic, dancing queen Bianca of Elizabeth Aspenlieder, McClain turns in a remarkably sincere, charming and confused Cassio. A victim of circumstances he never quite grasps, this character in McClainís hands becomes a highly sympathetic fool, a victim incapable of seeing how he has been used and abused. Aspenliederís Bianca is at turns bawdy and controlling, romantic and feisty. Itís a wonderful role in her hands.
Michael Hammondís Iago is almost consistently charming and low-key, cool and controlled. His smile is so insidious, so crooked across his strong face that he calls to mind television images of Dick Cheney. As his plot progresses Iago, in this manís hands, has an artificial joy in his success. We never feel his power grow, only his pleasure at having moved things one step further along. In fact, in the coolness of his delivery it is almost as though he has followed another manís plan, rather than one of his own. He takes visual satisfaction in not slipping up, getting lost in the details. At the end when he is exposed he becomes a chained force of nature, ready to break or be broken.
Kristin Wold as his wife satisfies on all counts, as does Ryan Winkles as the foolishly used Roderigo. Jonathan Croy as Lodovico shines in the final scenes as he brings news from Venice of Cassioís ascendency.
Merritt Janson and John Douglas Thompson are Desdemona and Othello. Her beauty is underscored by her acting, sincere, honest, heart-rending, clear and curt. She wastes no motions, never overplays a moment and is absolutely true to the character in every movement. He is bigger than life, a man of power who loses control all too easily. His epileptic seizures are monumental and his own tragic ending is so externally violent that had I not already been choked up with emotion over his playing out the tragic final scenes I would certainly have gagged on the physical reactions to his suicide. The power and control these two actors bring to their roles aids in the reality of their playing and makes this one of the most essential Othelloís I have ever witnessed. It is as though we are in their real room at this very real moment in time. They do not act the roles, the transform them.
Obviously, Simotes' concepts work.
This is an all-too-brief run and a must-see experience if there ever was one. I have been privileged to attend seven productions of this play in my lifetime, and Iíve seen extraordinary actors, but the only true privilege in it all is being allowed to see the one on stage in my own backyard. Concept aside, American politics of the 21st century be damned, Othello is alive in Lenox.
Merritt Janson and John Douglas Thompson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Michael Hammons and Thompson; photo: Kevin Sprague
LeRoy McClain and Elizabeth Aspenlieder; photo: Kevin Sprague
Othello plays through August 31 in repertory at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA. For ticket and schedules information call their box office at 413-637-3353.