OK. I’m confused.
I really, really liked the Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The acting is top-notch. The production values are very impressive, particularly the costumes by Patrick Holt and scenic design by Peter Beudert and Samantha Visbal. Produced in the Tornabene Theatre, in which seating can be shifted and the staging areas can be configured in all manner of variations, director Brent Gibbs used the entire space for an environmental theater approach in which the audience was immersed in the action. Shakespeare sets it in Venice, and Othello is a Moor and there is talk of war in Cyprus.
So why did I keep hearing American folk songs from the nineteenth century? And why were the women dressed like Scarlett O’Hara, in hoop skirts and elaborate dresses? And why did the soldiers, except for the Moor’s gang, seem to be outfitted like the Union Army in the Civil War? And what exactly were the Moor’s gang wearing anyway? They looked very militarily exotic, but how did that connect with the Civil War garb, if such it was?
And here you have the issue of re-envisioning Shakespeare in time and place. It may work brilliantly, or it may be distracting. Here it was distracting. There may be justification for associating it with the American Civil War, where race—which is one of the main themes of the play—is certainly an issue. But it just doesn’t add anything to Shakespeare’s provocative tale.
So, you know the story. Othello (Chris Okawa) is a trusted soldier in the Duke’s (were there such in America?) army. He is dark skinned and, therefore, different. The Other. And he is recently married to Desdemona (Kierna Conner), a very white girl, whose father is sure Othello must have conjured magic and spells to win her. Othello’s trusted associate Iago (Matthew Bowdren), a smart but very unhappy man, is hell-bent on destroying Othello, who passed him over for a promotion. Maybe that’s what makes Iago do what he does. Or maybe he hates Othello because it is rumored that Othello has “made the beast with two backs” with Iago’s wife. Whatever the reason—and these two don’t seem quite plausible enough to lead Iago to act as extremely as he does—Iago sets about orchestrating an intricate scheme to make Othello think that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Othello becomes utterly and irrationally jealous to the point of murdering his never un-faithful wife. His jealousy is just ugly. Iago looks on and watches, bemused and delighted, as his carefully manufactured plot unfolds, bringing death and destruction to many. It’s all really hard to watch, on an emotional level. Iago seems to have no heart or conscience or reason. And Othello, so upstanding at the beginning, is overwhelmed by unjustified jealousy, the “green-eyed monster,” as Shakespeare refers to it. Iago may hatch a heartless scheme, but Othello is all too ready to believe his associate and to doubt his wife, and causes all manner of disaster himself.
So what are we to make of all this? What really motivates Iago to be so cruel and manipulative? Maybe Iago is just Evil. The Devil himself. He admits he is an enigma: “I am not what I am.”
It’s a very disturbing story. I don’t think placing it during the American Civil War enhances it at all, and, in fact, is distracting, which is never a desirable thing.
Still, the strength of Shakespeare’s tale and the admirable characterizations of the capable actors, particularly Bowdren and Okawa, make this production compelling and, really, quite spectacular.