After last year's revelatory Lear, the Shakespeare Forum mounts another bold, insightful production for El Barrio's Shakespeare Festival 2019. This time, it's Othello(s)--a work that reimagines Othello from the perspectives of different characters: Roderigo, Desdemona, Iago, Emilia, and Othello himself. The text of Shakespeare's play hasn't changed; it's simply been broken up and rearranged to create four individual stories.
In the first, we see only the scenes featuring Roderigo: starting with his visit to Brabantio and ending with his death. In the next, we see only the scenes featuring Desdemona, and so on.
The result is an Othello that leans heavily into the individual experience: mining the richness of Shakespeare's characters and even, to a certain extent, putting us in the shoes of each of them in turn, until we've seen the story play out from almost every angle and have a certain degree of sympathy for each player (even, however fleetingly, for Iago).
Directed by Sybille Bruun-Moss, the production is sparse on props and set pieces--though there's a chilling moment when Desdemona's wedding sheets fall from the ceiling--instead emphasizing the characters and the importance of their actions. Light and dark are utilized to devastating effect, with a bright central spotlight illuminating each character as their turn arrives.
This first-rate ensemble cast makes each story freshly compelling, and color- and gender-blind casting only add to the complexity of each perspective. As if that weren’t enough, the cast changes roles for each story, suggesting the different ways in which each character views their fellows and inviting us to see the story with new eyes again and again.
In an almost in-the-round space, the audience is nearly on top of the action, and when that spotlight shines, it's a clear invitation to enter into the psyche of whoever's currently standing under it. Meanwhile, the darkness threatening from every corner is a reminder of just how alone in their individual experience each person truly is--and how ignorant they are of what takes place off their individual stage. This is almost Othello as Virginia Woolf might have written it.
I found it particularly enlightening to watch the tragedy unfold through Desdemona's eyes, without being privy to the private conversations between Othello and Iago. As a result of careful directorial editing, I found myself sharing her confusion and sorrow when her husband at first gives her the cold shoulder and finally lashes out in seemingly unwarranted anger.
In short, Othello(s) is as thoughtful and as fresh a Shakespearean production as you're likely to see: it delves deeply into Shakespeare's tragedy, creating new meaning without undermining the Bard's words.
It brings a new perspective (or three or four) to the Moor of Venice, and it challenges the audience to see with new eyes, cultivate empathy, and realize the impact each of their actions has on others. In this tragedy, there's not just one Othello, but several: as you leave the theatre, you may even feel like one yourself.
Part of the Shakespeare Festival, Othello(s) is playing May 30 - June 15 2019.