Review: Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello
By Perry Tannenbaum
In so many ways, the new Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello is radically different than any we’ve seen before. For starters, take the text, a modern verse translation by Mfoniso Udofia, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and flying off to Raleigh for its world premiere, streaming on a dedicated YouTube channel. As a longtime advocate of translating Shakespeare’s works into a form that would be as readily accessible to English-speaking audiences as plays by Moliere or Chekhov, I can attest that such an eminently sensible undertaking is widely viewed as sacrilege – among scholars, academics, and the theatre community. Less heretical is what director JaMeeka Holloway does with the 16th century settings of the tragedy, transporting the Moor of Venice to a fictional Venice College of today, where cellphones and laptops and Zoom meetings are all part of student life.
Utilizing an all-Black femme creative team and a diverse all-female cast, Holloway is boldly at odds with the Udofia translation, setting up many fascinating tensions between the modernized Shakespearean text and her production. Othello is now a debate champion of international stature and no longer a military general. Cassio is appointed as Othello’s second in Venice’s glorified debate society, slighting our honest Iago. Perhaps most bewilderingly, genders are blurred. Or fluid? Holloway often jumps off the binary confines of the Udofia translation and onto frontiers of non-binary gender or gender neutrality.
Contradicting the helpful captions projected at the bottom of our screens, Brabantio remains Desdemona’s father – and a Senator. Othello is still described as Desdemona’s husband and far older than Nubia Monks appears to be. Attending an all-women’s college, Othello is still spoken of as a general and, more puzzlingly, within the space of a few words, “She is a great man.” The disgraced Cassio gets a similarly straddling description, “She is a ladies’ man,” when Iago denigrates her, plotting her murder with Roderigo. And as you might suspect, Emilia continues to extenuate any duplicities she may be contemplating with the dastardly examples of men showing her the way.
Trespasses upon Udofia’s text remain slight, strictly confined to gender, because Holloway wordlessly transports Othello to America with a cinematic prologue that fully sets up the Moor’s champion status and the undercurrent of Venice College political rivalry, scored with eerie electronic music, hip-hop beats, and a sleek R&B groove. The feel of this WTF effort abruptly shifts from cinema to video when the actors begin to speak, establishing a useful borderline. Where Holloway wishes to underscore racism and white supremacy in Othello’s downfall, Udofia is already on board for her.
Most of the references to Othello as a Moor have disappeared in translation. The mighty general is far more often called Black, an animal, an ape, or a monkey, lending a more racist tang to Shakespeare’s many casual mentions – left intact – of Othello as a devil. We also see pretty quickly that Udofia is willing to expand upon Shakespeare’s verse and insert her own wit. After she translates Iago’s scornful opening description of rival Cassio as an “arithmetician” with “a mathematician,” she layers on “This adder – and subtractor – this bipedal calculator.” A slithering new laugh for Othello!
All 36 playwrights recruited for OSF’s Play On! Project, charged with translating all of Shakespeare’s theatrical works, must wrestle with the question of what to modernize and what to leave untouched and antique. When the film version of The Wizard of Oz was an annual rite on network TV, we all knew the narcotic sleep-inducing effects of poppies readily enough. Yet Udofia comes upon Iago’s mesmerizing “Not poppy, nor mandragora,// Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,// Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep// Which thou ow’dst yesterday,” and begins with “Not heroin,” stripping the horrid beauty away from Iago’s incantation. On the other hand, Udofia disdains a feminist touch that Holloway might have relished, changing “put money in thy purse” to “put money in your pocket” as Iago palliates and advises Roderigo. Wearing a masculine sport jacket, Roderigo is addressed here as a man, another spot where Udofia’s translation is unaltered.
Holloway is intentional and color-conscious in her casting and has chosen to keep Othello’s, Iago’s, and Roderigo’s races consistent with the demands of Shakespeare’s original text while the rest of the cast displays a more varied spectrum from Shakespeare’s concept, most notably Cassio, Brabantio, and Emilia. Although the gender and racial inconsistencies may vitiate Holloway’s salvos against institutionalized racism, they don’t loosen the grip of Shakespeare’s drama in the slightest. I would also venture to say that WTF’s all-female presentation shines a grimmer spotlight on the virulent misogyny that heats up Shakespeare’s rhetoric, from both Iago and Othello, two of the playwright’s largest roles. We are particularly fortunate in the prime antagonists Holloway has chosen, Monks as Othello and Zandi Carlson as Iago, who deliver this pervasive misogyny with cringeworthy gusto.
We expect no less from The Moor. What sets Monks truly apart as Othello, from the four Othellos whom I’ve seen live in four Charlotte productions since the turn of the century – and others on stage and screen before then – is the youthfulness of her portrayal, occasionally scented with her femininity. That youthful energy is most recognizable in the first bloom of the tragic couple’s love, when Othello tells of marrying Desdemona and later when she’s impatient to consummate their marriage. A similar energy overflows when Othello returns triumphantly from Cyprus, brandishing her trophy with all the glee and swagger of an NFL or WNBA champion who has just captured the title. A distinctively feminine flavor also surfaces in the little chuckles and sighs that come from Othello as she recalls her courtship for the Senate. As wholesome and appealing as Monks is to me for all of these qualities, we should also be aware of how Othello’s strength, poise, and confidence are viewed by Iago and Brabantio, the white establishment. Brabantio sees his prerogative to oppress Blacks – and dictate his daughter’s future – upended by Othello’s value to the state (or here, the College) while Iago sees her as usurping his supremacy. The furious hatred that Iago conceives for Othello is made more monstrous by the touches of youth, openness, and femininity that Monks has added.
There’s a vein of White privilege in Carlson’s portrayal of Iago that many will see as female cattiness when she conspires with Roderigo. Goading Cassio into drunkenness or inflating his ego on his past and present romantic conquests, Carlson serves up a cocktail that mixes gossipy confidences with barroom or locker-room badinage. Okay, so I do suspect Carlson may have stolen some glances at the text while delivering a couple of Iago’s longer monologues, but she is clearly a consummate master at the webcam, taking us into her diabolical musings and schemes. Would cheating truly compromise Iago’s villainy – or would such sneakiness compound it? Whole new vistas have been opened by the webcam and the Zoom format, breathing fresh life into theatrical monologues and Shakespearean soliloquy. Carlson’s work here is a prime exhibit.
The backgrounds that production designer Keyanna Alexander has selected for her scenic design, whether elegant or cheesy, were beautifully curated. Daylight splashes all around the scene where Othello returns triumphantly from her overseas adventure, reunited with Desdemona, who was separated from her during the voyage; and the actual laptop computer framing the Moor’s arraignment at the Senate is a hoot, a very polished touch to boot. Or how about Danyelle Monson as Bianca, introducing herself on a webcast shown to us on a cellphone, with emojis and chat cascading down the screen? But however grungy and cool the video concept was, I wish WTF had used better webcams and mics to execute it. Chiefly victimized was Jazmyn Boone as Iago’s wife Emilia, a marvelously frail and fallible portrait that was often muffled or not heard at all.
Unless you had visions of a blonde, straight-haired Desdemona who was cloyingly chaste and submissive, Alicia Piemme Nelson‘s performance was easily the most conventional Shakespeare in sight, offering the best proof that a modernized text really does work – a courtesy to the Bard that is long overdue. Adoring yet sassy, far more dignified than coquettish, Nelson gave us a slight update on Dez, one that meshed well with Monks’ soulful charisma. She also inspired one of Holloway’s most resourceful camera placements, an overhead shot of her in the famed deathbed scene.
All of the supporting players are excellent, down to Mieko Gavia as a fulminating, browbeating Brabantio and Elaine Wang as a cool preoccupied Duke. Special delights come from the comical turns by Danyel Geddie and Marissa Garcia as Iago’s tools. Geddie brings us a Cassio who fancies himself a bon vivant, though we see her brown-bagging her wine; susceptible enough to drink that we can seriously question Othello’s choices in subordinates; and a party person who seems perfectly matched with Monson’s buxom, fun-loving Bianca. Garcia as Roderigo was so sincerely besotted with Desdemona that I hated to see such a pure soul so wickedly betrayed by Iago.
The new lens that Holloway had us seeing through was somewhat distorted when it focused on Roderigo, normally a depraved older man who thinks he can buy a beautiful daughter’s love from her mercenary father. Such creeps are longtime theatre staples. When a company decrees all-female casting on a Shakespeare tragedy, when a director’s concept further circumscribes the playwright’s creations to college age on a college campus, and a pandemic further constricts the space, action, and interaction allowed to the actors… stuff gets lost. Here, it was Roderigo’s corruption and depravity. He never had a single ducat in his hand, let alone his pocket.
Holloway has added a cinematic epilogue to silently complete the framing of her Venice College concept, one that dispels its complexities and contradictions. Along the way, if we’ve allowed this WTF production to lead us where it will, I’d say Holloway and her exemplary cast have revealed more than they’ve sacrificed. Far more.