july 2016 | volume 145
Kayla Deorksen, Luc Roderique & Kayvon Kelly
OTHELLO, 2016. Photo & Image Design: David Cooper & Emily Cooper.
Oh that Iago! It’s often the case that productions of Shakespeare’s Othello are dominated by witty, nasty, diabolically clever, sociopathic, manic and slightly insane Machiavellian Iago rather than the staid, dignified title character, at least until late in the play when Othello himself becomes insanely jealous and homicidal due to Iago’s manipulations.
The last time Bard on the Beach did Othello, back in 2009, Bob Frazer played Iago and stole the show. This time Frazer directs—with a similar result. Kayvon Kelly’s Iago is fascinating, loathsome and terrific, a creature of unflagging energy and perverse intelligence. And just listen to him growl the word “lechery.” Not that Luc Roderique’s Othello or Kayla Deorksen’s Desdemona is chopped liver. This production features a very strong cast across the board. But Kelly’s exciting and excited Iago drives the play. What he does is ugly and horrible but you can’t take your eyes off him.
Frazer has moved the play from Renaissance Cyprus to Civil War Charleston to highlight, he says, the play’s and our own racial issues. This partial adaptation doesn’t really feel necessary. It creates awkward incongruities (the Duke is still referred to as the Duke, though this is 1860s America) and only manages to up the racial ante in one way. Cassio’s girlfriend Bianca, played by Sereana Malani, an actress of colour, serves as Union General Othello’s maid. Her silent, watchful presence in many scenes and her conspicuous curtsey each time she exits create a powerful ambiguity. Is the Union Army, fighting against the pro-slavery South, that much more racially liberated than the Confederacy? Sound designer Steve Charles peppers the production with period ballads and hymns performed, mostly offstage, by the cast. The idea is more interesting than the music itself, which sometimes distracts from the onstage action.
Yet the power, human drama and terror of Shakespeare’s story come through clearly and affectingly. Roderique’s Othello is a decent man whose transformation into a quivering, tormented, roaring killer who destroys the thing he loves most is awful to behold. Deorksen’s Desdemona is no meek, passive victim but a lively, intelligent woman, as strong in her own way as her husband, and her murder is horrifically violent. Other standout performances include Luisa Jojic as Iago’s wife Emilia, Andrew Cownden as lovelorn Roderigo, Iago’s gull, and David Warburton as Brabantio, Desdemona’s unforgiving father.
The Civil War setting gives costume designer Mara Gottler the opportunity to put Desdemona into some exquisitely patterned dresses with beautiful hooped skirts. But the final costume for Othello, combined with Roderique’s relative youthfulness, seems an odd choice. In overalls and an open-necked work shirt with rolled up sleeves, this Othello looks more like a field hand than the great general on whom the state depends. We lose some of the sense of authority and gravitas that, for Shakespeare, make Othello’s tragic fall so profound.
Maybe, paradoxically, both Othello’s and Desdemona’s three-dimensional human ordinariness in this production make Iago’s crimes even more terrible. We are witness not just to the destruction of a Great Man, but to crimes against humanity.
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