OMG — It’s “Othello” — Mooring a Glam Jam at ZJU

Spoiler Alert: This review reveals all. Sorry; there’s no other way. I’d be pleased if you’d just go see the play first, then read this after.

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Othello may not be Shakespeare’s best play, nor his best-loved, but it gets staged a lot. While it’s obviously a morality tale about jealousy,  American versions almost always focus as well on our, um, peculiar problem: race.

Recently, a fine production by LA’s Illyrian Players reached deeper, using the story to explore all the artificial polarities — black/white, female/male, good/evil — that we use to separate ourselves into what we call “civilization.”  [See “Tragic in Black and White,” below.]

Vincent Cusimano, Vanessa Cate (photo: Josh T. Ryan)

Vincent Cusimano, Vanessa Cate (photo: Josh T. Ryan)

And now, Zombie Joe’s Underground enters the lists with (as you might expect) one of the most outlandish ideas ever.  Stripping away the historic setting and military theme, ZJU makes Othello the head of a modern fashion house, trading the clash of guns and swords for flash and glitz of the runway.

“Desdemona wears Prada” — only she doesn’t, she’s O’s top model and paramour.  A new character, The Photographer, is everywhere kneeling and purring, his flash transforming mortal moments into the immortal reality of the media. And Iago — well, imagine if you can a mashup of the Cabaret Emcee and Al Pacino as Richard the Third.

It’s a daring idea. But in drastically adapting Shakespeare’s drama, director Josh T. Ryan and producer Zombie Joe don’t hijack the Bard into their own fantasy (“Hey! The 1920s! Prohibition!”). They dive deep into the subtext, and find a dark pearl at the story’s heart — the human ego.

That’s what drives the demonic Iago, what twists Othello’s “love” into possessive rage and murder, what propels the careerist “good guys” Cassio and Roderigo.  Even Desdemona and Emilia, who want to be popular and virtuous, trip over reality while looking  in their mirrors.

The play is swift, sparkling, breathless — and relentless.  We flash from pedestal to runway and back, barely able to freeze-frame an image and begin to think about it before we’re snatched by another. By the time death arrives (mourned with pop power ballads), we feel — not think — our judgment: Glittering egotism cheapens and then destroys everything.

ZJU’s take on Othello is shocking, powerful and memorable.

Most unforgettable is Vincent Cusimano’s nonstop tour de force as Iago, the coy Dionysos who drives this world and seduces us into it.  As Othello, the redoubtable Vanessa Cate anchors the madnesswith a macho male who’s alone in not being polyamorous (and is fatally inflexible).  Sebastian Muñoz’s Photographer frames it all, tracing a deft arc from passive witness to passionate devotee.

Hannah Mosqueda’s almost innocent nerd Roderigo (a nice balance to Cate’s alpha trans male) reaches far beyond his/her grasp. And as blithe Cassio, Quinn Knox’s clueless self-focus makes him easy prey.

Awed by the show’s gender fluidity, you might not notice it’s far from feminist — the female characters are reduced to very few lines. Still, Hedy Beinert sets Bianca’s neediness afire, Kirsten Benjamin wields a regal beauty to enforce Desdemona’s (derivative) power, and Anna Gion’s stunning physical presence strengthens Emilia’s (flawed) moral authority.

Costumer Jeri Batzdorff brings O’s haute couture line vibrantly to life, Natalie Hyde’s brilliant maquillage makes the outrageous feel familiar, and Kevin Van Cott’s music pumps the show like lifeblood.

Once again, ZJU has done something surprising.  This time, it’s not just a dazzling dive into a world of Dionysian excess. It’s a deep and thought-provoking take on a classic, focusing on core issues that few — if any — of its predecessors have managed to find.

Don’t miss this Othello. You will never see its like again.
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Othello, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Josh T. Ryan and Zombie Joe, directed by Josh T. Ryan.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm, through June 27th.

Tickets: <www.zombiejoes.com> or (818) 202-4120.