The first thing one notices about Brazilian Director Ron Daniel’s production of Othello is the bank of gigantic fans high up on the upstage wall–huge, overpowering industrial machines waiting, waiting to let fly a torrent of turbulence. Ominously lit from behind, they are at once stunning and beautiful, terrifying and inevitable, and I salute Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez and Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind for creating a world of impending disturbance. Reminiscent of jet engines and industrial turbines, the set begs for semiotic analysis, and one discovers that the word “turbines” comes from the Latin “turbo,” meaning vortex. Vortex, as in “drawing into its center all that surrounds it….inescapable and destructive.” Like a black hole—a force of nature so powerful as to beggar the imagination.
Played with fierce intelligence and commanding strength…
Below the turbines is a raked slab of stage, a thick metallic wafer bracketed on either side by rusted oil drums strewn about; ringing the stage are rows of lights, points of illumination and connection in this mechanistic, dystopian setting. And then, enveloping it all are these smooth, sleek walls of dark wood slats extending ever upward, accentuating the vaulted splendor of Shakespeare Theatre’s Sydney Harmon Hall. There’s a French novelist named Alain Robbe-Grillet who wrote a book in 1957 entitled, in English, Jealousy. The French title, however, is La Jalousie, which translates not only as jealousy, but also as the “jalousie window,” like the Venetian-blind slates through which the jealous husband in the novel spies on his wife.
Based on the set alone there will clearly be mega forces at work in Director Daniel’s Othello.
And indeed there are forces larger than the petty revenges of even Shakespearean characters at play here, though this geo-political scope does not reach full throttle until the second act when it becomes clear that this is a production, not about Othello, not even about Iago, but about the social order’s relentless, horrifying violence against women.
Fast forward past all of the machinations of power that cause Othello to pass Iago by for military advancement, past even all of Iago’s vicious manipulations that deceive Othello and drive him into a jealous rage against a wife falsely accused of infidelity, and we are left with cold-blooded, premeditated murder of a trusting, innocent woman, carried out with a husband’s sickening presumption of righteousness and impunity: an honor killing. An action still considered a just act according to a staggering number of cultures, past and present, against a woman who defies the patriarchy.
In fact, according to a UN report, “Violence against women constitutes the most common crime in the world with the highest levels of impunity for perpetrators.” At least one third of female victims of homicide in the US are killed by their intimate male partners. Globally, a conservative estimate indicates 5,000 murders are committed in the name of “honour” each year.
Add Desdemona—and Iago’s wife Emilia–to the list and consider this production’s point well made.
Throughout, Director Daniel’s production reaches beyond the individual narrative to these larger, macro concerns, so that the details of plot that dominate the first half of the evening present more as perfunctory than pivotal–so much backstory to establish until the moment reaches its crisis in the second half.
What surfaces most from the play’s early exposition is the depth and uniqueness of Iago’s tempering as a soldier, twisted and hardened as he is by the red beast of war. Played with seething swagger and amorality by Jonno Roberts, this Iago has learned well the irrelevance of virtue in war’s brutal quest for dominion.
By contrast, the others, the military command structure within which Iago sought advancement, present more as gentlemen than combatants—a high-born officer’s club unspoiled by the bestiality of combat.
Into this aristocratic web comes Othello the Moor, the military hero who remains yet the outsider, the exotic foreigner who has wooed and won the heart of the commander’s daughter, Desdemona. Played with an ease of command by esteemed Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir, Othello strides among officers and enlisted alike with dispatch and an eerie calm.
Faced with his daughter’s cross-cultural, inter-faith inlovedness, Desdemona’s father Brabantio—played with patriarchal verve by Rufus Collins–is not pleased, and it is only through Desdemona’s persuasive pleadings—authentically and passionately presented by Ryman Sneed as Desdemona, that their marriage is approved. Legendary actor Ted van Griethuysen, as the Duke of Venice, even provides one of the evening’s few comic moments after this exchange.
Meanwhile, Othello has promoted Cassio over Iago; hence, Iago’s motivation for revenge. Cassio, however, is untested by combat, and in Iago’s soldierly calculus he is unqualified to command. Played convincingly by Patrick Vaill, this Cassio is more scholar than soldier—a delicately handsome young man filled with the illusion that statecraft and empire are guided by high purpose.
Indeed, the production gives us a genteel military and political ensemble in which the countenance of even the foot soldiers is one more of civility and erudition than brawn or bravado (a handsome assemble of accomplished actors including Ben Diskant as Roderigo, Gregory Linington as Montano, Elan Zafir and Robbie Gay as Senators, and David Baker, Stephen Elrod, Jackson Knight Pierce, and Brian Reisman as Soldiers).
As the revenge plot advances, Roberts gives us Iago’s beating heart of vitriol against the foreign-born Othello; and Iago’s venom becomes chillingly referential to our own era of mega manipulation by politician puppeteers pushing our collective buttons.
By the second half of the performance, Tahir’s Othello, who was all gentility and refinement in part one, powerfully lays bare the unquestioning male logic of domination, of a husband’s inalienable right to slay his wife if she be unfaithful. Significantly, Othello has also by then shed the strictures of his military uniform and donned instead the flowing robes of a foreign culture. The setting too has changed, from the external and professional world of the military to the interior, personal one of Othello’s home. A huge, medieval tapestry has descended, of a lion and a book inscribed in Latin, something about peace, and it conjures the Crusades and the bloody collision of East and West, Christendom and Islam.
The professional has become the deeply personal, and, as gender struggles worldwide continue to teach us only too well, the personal is the political. The production too has infused this domestic tragedy with geo-political implications that are profoundly provocative in our current political climate. Before his rage reaches its crescendo, for example, Othello kneels and prays on a prayer cloth and the imprimatur of cultural otherness is indelibly made.
Within this vortex of masculine violence, Desdemona, virtuous to the end, naively and foolheartedly believes her innocence will protect her. Indeed, it falls to Emilia, her attendant and Iago’s wife (from whom Iago received Desdemona’s fatefully misplaced handkerchief with which Iago deceives Othello), to reveal the truly wicked forces at play.
Played with fierce intelligence and commanding strength by Merritt Janson, Emilia alone among the characters perceives the grotesque implications of this play’s violence. And it is her outrage that anchors the moral compass of this production; hers is the voice of unblinkered reality and truth, and we gather from her the global implications of Othello’s crime. Tragically, for Emilia’s truth telling, Iago slays his wife as well, another woman killed by an enraged husband who believes it to be his right.
It subsequently falls to injured Cassio and his new command structure to right the ship of state, if not the state of culture. Perhaps, one feebly hopes, the brutal reality of Iago and Othello’s rage will temper their governance at last.
Rounding out the cast is the adept performance by Natascia Diaz as Cassio’s fiery and insubordinate concubine Bianca.
Additional kudos to Sound Designer Fitz Patton for the intermittent and ominous deep percussive gongs and tones that foreshadow the coming darkness. Costume Designer Emily Rebholz has clad the characters in signature garments, from Desdemona’s flowing white gown to Othello’s flowing red robes and Iago’s strapping leather great coat, setting the play seamlessly in another place and time with all too contemporary parallels. Fight Director Robb Hunter and Voice and Text Coach Gary Logan provide technical precision and authenticity.
Recommended for ages 13 and above.
Advisory: Physical violence.
Running Time: Three hours including one 15 minute intermission.
Othello runs through March 27, 2016, at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sydney Harmon Hall, 610 F St., NW, Washington, DC.
For tickets, click here or call 202-547-1122 or toll free at 877-487-8849.