In the four centuries since he wrote it, Shakespeare’s Othello has almost always been two plays at once. One shows us a complex, tragic collision of human emotions: love and hatred, trust and jealousy. The other shows us a tribe of people reluctantly accepting and then expelling the “other.”
This time, the Independent Shakespeare Company has decided not to tell the second story. By choosing a multicultural cast, they have all but erased the racial imagery that – like a weaving cobra – entrances audiences who live in a racist culture.
The ISC has thus cleared the way for us to see the tragedy in our lack of emotional wisdom. We watch aristocrats and commoners alike, men and women alike, ignorant of their own deep motives, believing the selves they parade before the world – and thus wide open to manipulations, shocks and horrors.
Othello is a hero, wise in the ways of war; but, like Desdemona, he imagines that he is his actions. In all his years, he has learned little of his inner self; his love and trust are childlike, and he proves helpless before Iago, a rabbit in the paws of a tiger.
Desdemona is the hero’s mate, but no heroine; she, too, is an innocent, and most of her seeming strength is privilege. She, too, “loves not wisely but too well,” and has no way to meet a predator but to plead and then submit. Emelia, the lady’s maid, sets the plot in motion by trusting her abusive husband Iago instead of her own experience; she is the one character who gains insight and does something with it – but alas, too late.
Venice’s aristocrats are no better. Like Bassanio, Desdemona’s feckless father, they’re so busy keeping their eyes on the prize (wealth and power) that they miss what’s under their noses. Cassio, a model of their culture, is honest and courteous – and knows he should not drink. But he has no idea why he drinks, and that undoes him. Roderigo also understands the nobleman’s code, but not why he does anything he does; so he becomes Iago’s fool, and dies for it.
Then there’s Iago himself, who knows in detail what he’s doing, and for what purposes, and blithely says so. But of the causes of the anger and hatred that drive him he has no idea, and never asks. For all his manipulative skill, he is a powerless addict, whose illness destroys all around him.
This is a bleak and deeply tragic tale, with no Fortinbras at the end to sound a hopeful note. The ISC tells it about as well as it can be told.
Sticking to the text, stripping the stage of ornament (design uncredited), keeping costumes indicative but minimal (Houri Mahserejian), with lighting (Bosco Flanagan) and original music (Chris Porter) that build – and hold – the tension, director Melissa Chalsma’s team delivers expertly in the modest, modern space.
As Othello, Evan Lewis Smith brings a buoyant, confident energy (and consistent clarity). He lets his defenseless confusion emerge, until we feel the huge energy tied in knots, twisting helplessly against itself. As Iago, David Melville gives us a cool standup comic who dotes on the audience’s attention, and will not peer – even facing death — any deeper than the rage that fulminates just under his smooth surface.
Kalean Ung nicely traces Desdemona’s devolution from a witty, outspoken noblewoman to a woman in shock who, “as a sheep before her shearer, is dumb.” Fiona Cheung’s Emilia follows an opposite path, from murmuring obedience to furiously denouncing corrupt power; while Danny Brown makes the small role of Bianca a counterpoint to both, flying anxiously between seduction and submission, never finding any power of her own.
As Cassio, Sean Pritchett makes strikingly clear how well matched he is with Desdemona – both handsome and noble, both honest and loving, both oblivious to their vulnerability. And Faqir Hassan keeps us connected to hapless Roderigo, so that instead of disdain we feel compassion.
The emotional tragedy of Othello, as presented by this troupe of highly skilled professionals, is a powerful and dismaying monitory tale. As tragedy should be.
But make no mistake: The second story’s still there. Shakespeare lived in a racist society, and knew it. And he wrote it. It’s all in the lines, as Bard lovers are always saying; and there are lines enough in Othello to force us to recognize that these folks are racists. They freely spew the very same thoughtless calumnies that we allow ourselves (or our relatives and neighbors) to voice unchallenged. And those slurs betray a society built on racial exclusion.
The artists at Independent Shakespeare have laid bare the emotional tragedy of Othello. Now, can someone find a way to shed equal light on the racial story at the same time – and on the feminist awareness that helps to shape the play? It’s all there, waiting to be played.
Othello, by William Shakespeare, directed by Melissa Chalsma.
Presented by Independent Shakespeare Company, at Independent Studio, 3191 Casitas Ave./ Suite 168, LA 90039.
Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30,
Sundays at 2:00,
through May 7.
Tickets: <www.iscla.org> or (818) 710-6306.