Friday, June 22, 2012

Othello: Making Relevant the Subtext of Tragedy

By William Shakespeare
As performed by the
Hudson Shakespeare Company(website here:
June 15, 2012 in Van Vorst Park, Jersey City

Small lamps illuminate a section of lawn at Van Vorst Park, banners vaguely resembling coats of arms are draped on what look like easels, acting as backdrops creating a stage for this entertaining, intelligent and refreshingly relevant rendition of Othello by the Hudson Shakespeare Company. The mosquitos, out in force this year, annoy, and the sounds of traffic, kids from the nearby playground, and adults on cellphones distract, but only for a second or two. Summer is here again, and so is open air-Shakespeare.
Othello starts off with a scenario that could easily be farce – at the urging of an underling, the title character jumps to the wrong conclusion about the faithfulness of his wife and the supporting evidence is the whereabouts of a flowered handkerchief – but gradually the farce unfolds into the most disturbing tragedy in the folio. Even Titus, for all its bloodletting, for its rape and maiming and extreme pathos, cannot match the shock you feel when Othello strangles Desdemona in their bed. An outdoor summer venue enhances the going-ons; the 7:00 PM start time means a bright ambience and by the time most of major characters are slain, the sun has set and as if on cue, night is everywhere.

Through casting and direction, this Othello has some subtle contemporary shadings, enhancing the relevance of this play. One of my favorite Shakespeare’s, this play has personal significance for me only because of the impact it had when I studied it in College. I re-read the play before the Van Vorst performance, re-read the Othello chapter in Bloom’s Invention of the Human and listened to the Bloom lecture on Othello. What can I say; I’m a reader and literature geek.
How satisfying a Shakespeare performance is probably most due to the level of awareness of the director and players possess of ellipses and subtext. The bard leaves information out, prompting the audience (as well as actors and directors) to ponder how those spaces should be filled in. Most of Shakespeare’s themes are more below than above the surface of the language, character and plot. There is always more subtext (or potential interpretations of the subtext) than text and we all know, there’s a ton of text. The casting as well as direction with the Hudson production fills in ellipses and subtext with some subtle yet poignant contemporary touches, enriching this unnerving play with a tangible modern relevance.
The Othello plot – at least the first three acts – unfolds like a comedy of misunderstanding. The story opens in Venice, with the news that Othello (Michael Hagins), a mercenary officer, of African descent – the Moor – in charge of protecting the city from the Turks, aka Ottommites has eloped with Desdemona (Melissa Meli), a woman of Venetian upperclasses. At the same time, the Moor has promoted Cassio (Reynaldo Piniella) to his second in command, above Iago (Jon Ciccarelli), who out of resentment wreaks revenge by confusing Othello that this newly betrothed is having an affair with Cassio. The circumstantial evidence Iago uses is a handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello and found by Iago’s wife, Emilia (Laura Mae Baker), which Iago places in Cassio’s possession. When Othello sees the hanky in question, he goes ballistic.

 Now, consider that scenario. Iago is messing with a couple, wrong conclusions are reached, jealousy expressed. It is farcical and this Othello amps up the comedy, especially in Roderigo (Mark Levy), played as a big lumbering duffus with some highly amusing physical comedy from the actor. He’s fun to watch. Roderigo, a Venetian, is in love with Desdemona. Considering that this is the best mate material the city’s gentry has to offer, it is no wonder she crosses class and racial lines to partner with the dashing if volatile general. Iago enlists the fool in his sinister agenda. Not only was the emphasized comic aspects of the scenario not out of place, it likewise intensified the tragedy. Othello is upsetting. The play contains one of the most disturbing scenes in all of Shakespeare – in all of Western literature – when Othello strangles Desdemona in bed. The immediate repercussion of this horrific act is more blood letting. Othello commits a violent suicide. A shocking yarn, always powerful, timeless, and tragic.

 The bifurcation of the Hudson Othello makes the violence even more searing. One can’t help but compare it to Tarantino where snappy, comic dialog comfortably coexist with violence and gore. This whiplash effect demands attention, and when it feels natural to the story as it does with this staging of Othello, the result is engaging, provocative entertainment.

Iago, one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent characters, and at first he always gains our sympathy, we understand the resentment he feels about Cassio, who is not a battle-tested veteran of war like Iago. As casted, Iago is visibly older than Othello by more than a decade. This casting choice adds a timely element that brings the audience further into the play. We are living in age of ever evolving status quo. Social upheaval created by economic rapid restructuring and even adapting to new technologies have made it more common that a middle age worker has a younger boss, or has been passed over for promotion and seen a younger colleague advance. Baby boomer revenge against Gen X/Y is a contemporary fantasy, or fear, depending on your age.

How far will Iago go? It’s not until Othello collapses from Iago’s insinuation about Cassio and Desdemona’s that the Van Vorst performance indicates his vengeance knows no limits. We suddenly realize the man is a sociopath, but by then the pedal is to the metal and everyone was at the edge of their lawn chair regardless of how familiar they are with the story of the Moor. By this time, the Iago performance has encouraged us to give him the benefit of the doubt, the shock is a reversal and we are left in dumbfounded awe as we realize how limitless Iago’s vengeance will be.

In the text, the stage direction for Othello is “trance.” Hagis goes into a full epileptic convulsions, clinical and grotesque. He’s been on the verge of a breakdown, evidence by subtle mannerisms like a twitching hand held to his temple. A gleeful Iago crouches above his body. The comedy is over, the irrevocable horror has begun.

 Othello’s marriage to Desdemona faces three obstacle: race, class and age. That last one is practically eliminated by the casting. No longer is it a middle age Othello with a teenage virgin – about the same age as Juliet, twenty something – this casting by shifting the subtext away from age not only alleviates the old chestnut that Othello is impotent and/or fearful of a young woman’s sexual appetite (although the latter is still a reason Iago implies, that Desdemona’s insatiability supports the allegation of infidelity with Cassio) – it heightens the class and racial tension that Othello feels – and Iago exploits – concerning his recent marriage.

 By having her older and as portrayed, a more modern woman, her virginity is not an issue, which makes her murder by Othello even more ghastly. The famous line “I’ll not shed her blood, nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,” which precedes the strangulation, takes on a new meaning – the blood shedding was thought to have meant her hymen, I took it here, along with scar, that he is not going to mutilate but choke, emphasizing the method of murder like an expert killer would. The white skin than snow now deals the race card – has Iago triggered a learned distrust of whites that this Othello feels – he spent part of his life a slave and even Cassio as casted is a lighter skinned man of color. When Othello is questioning his new wife about where is the prized handkerchief, and later brings it up as they lay in bed and he is preparing to kill her, the internal racial feelings seem at the surface of the line delivery and Desdemona’s shock – earlier when he interrogates her about something as silly as the “napkin” and later when he accuses her of infidelity on the basis of the same cloth – is the surprise that she has transcended the racial issues and her realization that her husband has not. Her performance references another contemporary conundrum all married couples can relate to: this person is not acting like the person I thought I married. Let’s face it, even a younger Desdemona would be hard pressed to convey virginity in this day and age, but by taking that off the table through the age and mannerisms of the actress, not only is this Desdemona more realistic, the lack of naiveté makes her murder truly horrifying. She sees it coming, realizing that her love and trust was one sided. She had married a stranger.

Laura Mae Baker as Emilia becomes the fulcrum that makes this new albeit subtle reinterpretation so convincing. I was going to add feminist to modify reinterpretation but Shakespeare is well aware that women being trapped in second class status is the unjust consequence of a social power structure dominated solely by men. The director is smart enough to know that adding emphasis to that notion, inherent in the text, makes his Othello more relevant to our contemporary mindset. Emilia and Desdemona practically steal the show at the end of act four. Desdemona is preparing for bed with the help Emilia. Desdemona sings a song she remembered from childhood, and the actress was able to do a loud version – enough to be audible above the din of traffic – yet never abandoning character, never making the song sound out of place, i.e., not being sung in a bed chamber by an amateur. Desdemona is saying how women should know their place, and Emilia eventually informs her “have not we affections, desires for sport and frailty, as men have? Then let them use us well; else let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us so.” In this very well played scene, Desdemona is being taught by Emilia to have a modern, feminist sensibility – women are human beings, the same as men, but because men are in power, women are not seen as equals and are subjugated to whims, dysfunctions and the violent manifestations of the paranoid neurosis of male power.

The relationship between Emilia and Desdemona is the only true love – the only pure trust – in this bleak ballad of manipulation. The women are sinned against – even Elizabethan audiences would not be surprised by this idea – but Shakespeare, as focused through these two actresses, makes a contemporary statement which of course is supported by the soon to follow death bed scene. Othello’s strength is for hurting – he is a military man after all – and “their ills” is how Emilia identifies Othello’s inner turmoil about racial identity and his adherence to outdated ideas that Desdemona, as an empowered friend of her “sister” and mentor, Emilia, no longer believes. Desdemona’s love for Othello is genuine; when she realizes her husband will murder her, we share her fear, a combination of terror and heart-breaking disappointment. Baker’s performance in the bedroom scene enables us to see the non-virgin thus non-naive Desdemona as an empowered woman whose world is imploding amplifies the relevancy of the disturbing climatic scene at the core of this drama – and that relevancy was only made possible by the Emilia performance.

 After the murder, Everyone is gathered in the Emilia and we find out that Emilia is the smartest one in the play, she is the first one to realize that her has husband has duped everybody for his own psychotic ambition and has to explain “dull moor, that handkerchief thou speak’st of I found by fortune, and did give my husband…” Emilia knows that she will be slain and Iago soon gives her a death cut with his dagger, but just as her feminist outlook empowered Desdemona, her valor in revealing her husband’s guild, empowers the Moor to complete the tragedy with an honorable suicide.“I have done the state some service and they know’,” says Othello. He knows that his legacy of protecting Venice would get him off a murder rap, but Othello is essentially a man of honor and it is Emilia who reminds him of his better nature.

The suicide is staged like a seppuku, the Japanese ritual suicide in the name of honor. I felt like calling a florist to order the chrysanthemums. The nod to an Asian system of values – westerners tend to believe suicide by definition is repulsive and defeatist – added an international flavor to the play, another layer of relevancy courteous of the Hudson players.

Driven by vengeance, Iago is supremely intelligent. He knows the Moor better than Othello knows himself. Othello is easily manipulated, confirming my college professor’s analysis that his virtues were his vices; i.e., what made him great in battle made him weak at the domestic front. Iago has a fatal limit to his intelligence– he underestimated his own wife. His own wife, out of honor, love and a sense of justice that transcends the masquerade of comradeship by the mercenary soldiers, reveals the truth about Iago, fully aware this act will lead to her death. Iago’s evil intelligence has led to violent death and he himself is to be led away to be tortured at the end of the final scene. We ultimately hate Iago, but we love and forgive the Moor, because Othello realizes the wrong he has done, accepts his punishment and knows that only he can inflict that punishment. What is the evil, what is the wrong? Misogyny. Othello could not love as genuinely as Desdemona because he could not abandoned his misogyny, here intractably intertwined with racial attitudes, towards women. By killing himself, Othello redeems himself and that redemption was made possibly only by Emilia. He personally validates the feminist ideal.

 My camera battery crapped out half way through, so I was unable to document more scenes. I am amazed these young actors can pull of Shakespeare with no amplification and competing with all the other noises of an urban park. But as it has done for half a millennia, the language of the bard overcomes all obstacles. Feminism was always part of the subtext of the play; the Hudson Shakespeare Company showed how it was also crucial to the tragedy.

Othello - Michael Hagins
 Desdemona - Melissa Meli
  Iago -  Jon Ciccarelli
 Emilia -  Laura Mae Baker
 Brabantio/Lodovico -  Tom Cox
 Duke/Montano -  David Rosenberg
 Senator/ Bianca/Gratiano - Julie Robles
 Cassio -  Reynaldo Piniella
 Roderigo - Mark Levy

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