Othello is a rich text, full of polarities. It can be a play about love vs. jealousy … or honesty vs. deceit … or passion vs. reason, chaos vs. order. Or race, as it so often is in America.
Because of its richness, Othello can be confusing. On the page or the stage, we need a focus, a thread to find our way through it all.
The lllyrian Players’ current Othello is the most tightly focused I’ve ever seen. And therefore one of the best.
Director Carly Weckstein and her troupe have seized on the little “vs.” that sits almost unnoticed at the heart of all the polarities, and revealed that as the story behind the story.
We all know “vs.” — the short form of “versus,” used to pair (and separate) the two sides of a debate. We’re so used to it, though, that we may not notice its deeper meaning. Wherever it appears, that little “vs.” signals that we’ve reduced everything to two options. One must win while the other loses; one must be entirely true while the other is utterly false.
It’s “either/or,” a pattern of thinking that permeates our culture, from sex and race to sports and election campaigns. And wars.
“Two sides to every story,” we say. “Either us or them. Heaven or hell. For us or against us.”
Anyone in recovery from addiction recognizes this as “black and white thinking” — the most treacherous morass we can fall into as we try to find our way through the real world. Nothing is so simple. And thinking it is, is suicide.
The Illyrians stage their Othello inventively, and with forceful clarity. On the black back wall a white moon hangs, dripping its whiteness toward the earth. On the black floor lies a bloody white sheet. Black, white, and blood.
The play begins, as it did in Shakespeares’ day, with a “dumbshow” — a wordless pre-enactment of the tale. Black-clad figures dance, donning horned black-and-white masks, miming out what seems a steady, irresistible triumph of the demonic over the human.
In the play proper, Katie Jorgenson’s striking costumes play a fugue on black and white; mashing military with motorcycle gang, the leather-like uniforms’ epaulettes sprout spikes. All are in the dark, and at arms — offense or defense, fight or flight. Only Desdemona (Katelyn Myer) carries color, the green of living things.
This is a bleak, unsparing vision. Set in the midst of religious war (Christian West vs. Islamic East) it starts with a race-baiting and ends with murders and suicide.
Yet the milk of human kindness has not wholly dried. It still flows in Desdemona and Othello’s early love, in Maggie Blake’s bright turns as the Clown and the Duke (the latter a comic capriccio upon stairs, chairs and hierarchies), in the honest loyalty of luckless Cassio (Gerard Marzill), and in the unbreakable bond of love that links Emilia (Angela Sauer) to Desdemona.
This Othello takes us (or me, at least) to some unexpected places. As character after character falls prey to polarized thinking, most often led there by Iago, I sadly feel, “Alas! This is how we are.” But when Cassio, attacked by adversity (and his own weakness), struggles to remain faithful, I feel, “Ah! This is how I wish we were.” And at the climax, it is not innocent Desdemona who brings me to tears but Emilia. Her world is swiftly and sharply torn from her, yet she holds true to herself and her one surviving love, amid disillusion and death. “That,” I realize, “is how I hope to live — and die.”
Among the principals, Hamra, Myer and Zach Brown (as Othello) all know their characters and their arcs, and carve them out well. Supporting players Blake, Marzill, Daxon, and Michael Watterston (as Lodovico) all likewise create clear, believable personages. Everyone does slip at times into the bane of Shakespeare actors, rushing their lines.
Everyone, that is, except Emma Servant, whose saucy Bianca never leaves us guessing, and Luis Ordaz (Montano), a solid and steadying presence. And of course Sauer, whose flawless clarity and steadily growing intensity make Emilia — properly — the heroine of the tale. She is an actor I cannot wait to see again.
Othello presents, at its core, the tragedy of opposites — of “versus.” It dramatizes, painfully, our human habit of seeing everything as either/or, of bleaching the beautifully colored world and our magnificently complex selves into mere black and white.
Weckstein and company are to be congratulated for finding the heart of this many-themed 500-year-old play, and bringing it so forcefully to life in modern terms.
NOTE: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the 99-seat plan, with many questioning whether non-profit, non-paying companies can really create quality theatre on a shoestring. In a little black box on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Illyrian Players are giving a definitive answer.
Othello, by William Shakespeare, directed by Carly D. Weckstein.
Presented by The Illyrian Players Theatre Company, at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through Nov. 22.