During Shakespeare’s time, there was quite a bit of animosity toward strangers, Jews, Muslims and individuals with dark skin. Most Elizabethans unfurled blind hostility toward anyone who was a perceived threat to Christendom.
More than 400 years later, I’m not sure we, as a society, have remedied the situation. There is still a fear of “otherness.”
Shakespeare’s play ‘Othello’ is a prime example of how racism, intolerance and bigotry foster a culture of suspicion, antagonism and violence.
Jude Sandy, who brilliantly plays the title character, summarized his views of the core theme. “In a broad sense, this play…suggests most powerfully how a culture of violence inevitably turns against all humanity…. Because of this violence,…(i)nnocent and guilty alike are brought to ruin.” He adds, “ ‘Othello’ is as a compelling argument as I’ve ever experienced for renouncing violence of every kind in our lives, families, communities and in the world around us.”
Under the direction of Brown/Trinity Rep MFA alumna Whitney White ’15, the powerful play explores military themes, with a modern U.S. Army setting as its backdrop, as well as the friendships and relationships that form the basis for the legendary story of betrayal and jealousy.
Othello is viewed as a man of respect in military circles; however, he is portrayed as an outsider from the beginning of the play. First, the color of his skin makes him “different” which was a common bias during that time and for centuries beyond. Second, the first scene invites us to see how Othello is regarded by fellow soldiers. The antagonist Iago, played by Stephen Thorne, despised him because Othello overlooked the ensign for the position of lieutenant in favor of the inexperienced soldier Michael Cassio, portrayed by Charlie Thurston.
And finally, we discover that Othello, a Moor, has eloped with Desdemona, a fair-skinned, noble Venetian woman, played by Rebecca Gibel.
The dynamic between the actors is electric, as one would expect from a seasoned repertory ensemble. Nonetheless, this particular combination is especially compelling. The “band of brothers” mindset embodied by the male military characters is evident. But there is something even more undeniable about the “sisterhood” represented by the women within the play.
Angela Brazil plays Emilia, Desdemona’s handmaiden and Iago’s wife, and L’Oreal Lampley is the sassy strumpet Bianca. Despite their brief appearances on stage, these actresses are forces with which to be reckoned. Just when you think the testosterone has been amped up sufficiently and the audience is dizzy from the bold, blatant machinations of war, along comes one of the three female characters to infuse a tinge of truth, a spirit of loyalty or a hint of humor amid the dark and despairing deceitfulness.
Of particular note is the “Willow Song” scene, where Desdemona recalls a song she learned as a child. With Emelia at Desdemona’s bedside and Bianca isolated in a nook of the theater, the three of them sing a haunting refrain with all the emotional soul of a spiritual.
Even if you are familiar with Shakespeare’s tragic play, Trinity Rep’s tradition of modernizing a play by virtue of its setting, costumes, ad libs and incidental music will have you surprised and stunned until the final scene. For example, Thorne’s mercurial ability to portray one of Shakespeare’s most villainous characters with such charm and sincerity is frightening. He is able to convince and capture the trust of both the audience and the other characters. One is never sure just how his next malicious intent will manifest. As Thorne aptly expresses it, “[Iago] unleashes a profound amount of evil, but only after a number of failures. And he modifies his reasoning as he goes along – adapting to situations that present themselves.”
While the play is grim (it’s a Shakespearean tragedy, after all!), according to Curt Columbus, the Arthur P. Solomon and Sally E. Lapides Artistic Director, “This ‘Othello’ will be a stirring experience, so lean in and enjoy the ride.”
The play runs approximately two hours and 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. “Othello” runs through March 18. Tickets, which start at $25, are on sale now at trinityrep.com, by calling 401-351-4242 or at the theater’s box office at 201 Washington St., Providence.
KARA MARZIALI (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the director of communications for the Jewish Alliance and a theatre aficionado.