Entertainment » Theatre

Othello: The Moor of Venice

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Nov 17, 2017
Othello: The Moor of Venice

In his program notes for Invictus Theatre's inaugural production of "Othello: The Moor of Venice", director Charles Askenaizer notes the dearth of roles for women in Shakespeare, but also that: "Shakespeare's language transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and any other cultural identifiers." Giving truth to the words, Invictus not only features a female Iago, but leads a strong production with the women of the play in the forefront.

Staged in Heartland Studio Theatre's intimate black box, Askenaizer and his cast capture the rowdy, bloodthirsty, often-toxic environment of an active military camp, beginning with Kevin Rolf's Scenic Design. Necessarily simple, Rolf masks the upstage wall with a heavy canvas tent, creating two entrances.

The rest of the set is primarily heavy military crates set and reset by uniformed cast members who crisply salute, marking the beginning of each scene. Supported by Becs Bartle's lighting design, in this way, the time and space of the play remain impressively clear, given the constraints of the small theater.

Amy Allyssa Johnson's costume design is mostly fatigues plus out-of-closet pieces for the non-military characters. Still, Johnson manages to convey some important and interesting aspects of identity. Desdemona's dress when she's fresh from her secret marriage emphasizes her youth and upper-class status, whereas her practical jumpsuit later in the play signals her embrace of life as a camp wife. Emilia's tight jeans and bright teal sleeveless top convey her lower status and cast her actions in a more sympathetic light, as it's clear her attachment to Iago has life-and-death stakes for her.

If there's any weakness in the staging, it's occasional blips in sound. Although most of the sound and music (Donny Walker and Kelly Askam, Designers) is well integrated and supports transitions, toward the end, there were a few awkward, intrusive cues. On a similar note, Lana Whittington's fight choreography is impressive in the confined space, but the noise of it is occasionally overwhelming for an audience that is definitely up close and personal.

Askenaizer notes in the program that he still sees the play as wholly Othello's, despite the decision to cast a woman as Iago. Reginald Vaughn's performance as the Moor is solid. Hey manages to foreground the internalized self-loathing that drives many of the character's actions, and his infatuation with Desdemona plays as a believable tension with his military duties.

That said, Callie Johnson as Desdemona, Karissa Murrell Myers as Iago and Lynne Baker as Emilia steal the show. Murrell Myers is compelling as Iago, and without at all "playing" a man, she deftly moves between moments where gender is and is not important, where Iago is a woman grown hard and ruthless in a man's world, and where she is more simply driven by an aggrieved sense of entitlement that's unfortunately all too familiar in the current political climate.

Johnson plays Desdemona as a decidedly young woman, but definitely not a girl. In the face of her father's wrath at her marriage, she is heartbroken but resolved. As the champion of Cassio's cause, she reads not as simply naive, but generous, fair-minded and grateful to those who have offered some warmth to a woman in a difficult environment. Opposite Vaughn, the fatal miscommunications between seem infinitely plausible, rather than maddeningly contrived.

Without ever lapsing into a cheap stereotype, Baker's Emilia is a little on the trashy side. She plays the character as a survivor, but one with a genuine heart and she elevates Emilia's death and connection to Desdemona, despite the few lines the play gives her.

In the supporting cast, Felipe Carrasco is very good as Cassio. He plays the character as a bit of a lunk, but one who has found a niche in the rigid structure of the military. Robert Vignisson's performance as Roderigo capitalizes on the same attributes, so the two are interesting foils for one another.

Joseph Beal's performance as Desdemona's father, Brabantio, is towering, volubly loathsome and also critical for establishing the pervasive, externalized racism of the world of the play. Here, the close confines work in favor of the performance, as the miasma of his hatred for Othello lingers through the rest of the play.

"Othello" runs through December 3 at the Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood, Chicago. For tickets or information, visit www.invictustheatreco.com

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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