Remember her as one who has loved not wisely but too well. The Bay Area finally gets a honest-to-god lesbian Othello in Impact Theatre's careful adaptation of Shakespeare's shortest, bluntest tragedy. And the world as we know it does not end, as some purists would warn us. None of the messages or themes of the original work are obscured by director Melissa Hillman's choice to have a woman playing a woman as the Moor of Venice; none of the questions of race, assimilation, love, or jealousy are given short shrift. Like Impact's other stabs at Shakespeare, this is the Bard laid bare swiftly and effectively for a modern audience.
This has been done before in other places. One NYU grad student, trying to get at Othello's "otherness" in some other way, devoted her master's thesis to directing a version where Othello was a woman masquerading as a man. She found that the end result was far more visceral but still coherent, although she admits she wouldn't try it outside of an academic context. In 2000, Austin's Luna Mama theater company tried it, and took it much further; in their production (labeled "murky" and "distracting" by a local critic), the word "Moor" was replaced by "lesbian," and characters delivered asides about the golden days of matriarchy, when whores were sacred. Not to mention other sorts of nonlesbian tweaks and adaptations: the 2001 film O with Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett as high school basketball players, and the less-than-successful 2002 TV version that set the story in a modern-day police station.
Hillman's Othello begins much as did the 2003 Woman's Will production (in which a woman played a man), with a wordless, fast-paced prologue showing Othello looking over her soldiers and promoting Cassio over Iago. But Hillman goes farther and sexes things up, showing Brabantio, Desdemona's father, fondling Emilia (Desdemona's maid and Iago's wife) and a hot little moment between Othello and Desdemona that showcases the truly impressive musculature of Skyler Cooper, who plays Othello. Then we get to the point where Shakespeare started, with Iago (Casey Jackson) and Roderigo (David Ballog) scheming outside of the Brabantio residence, and things are much as we've seen them before. Brabantio (a terrifyingly cold Patrick MacKellan) is horrified to learn that his daughter has eloped with "that thing." After the levelheaded, husky-voiced Othello -- aka "that thing" -- is spared jail because the powers that be need her to go take Cyprus in hand, Iago's evil game is afoot.
More unusual than having Othello played as a lesbian is casting Iago as a light-skinned black man, especially since this play is so very much about seething, duplicitous Iago. Here's a man who, while very honest with the audience about his intentions and schemes, is wearing a mask for everyone else. It heightens the contrast between him and Othello, who makes no secret of her orientation and has no apparent shame about her color. There are points where Iago mocks his commander by mimicking her voice in a much higher register, or referring to her disparagingly as "the Moor," and what comes across is his own ill-concealed discomfort. So while in some productions it is suggested that Iago hates Othello for other reasons besides Cassio's promotion, here it's possible that Iago's hatred flows from the fact that Othello has, despite her color and sexuality, assimilated so much more successfully than he has. Casey Jackson gets that subtlety across, as well as playing Iago with a broad good humor that makes the audience complicit in his scheming, and the end that much more horrible as a result.
Speaking of Emilia (Bernadette Quattrone), here she is a much more engaging and pivotal character than usual. She also is more morally suspect. Emilia usually doesn't register until the moment when she gives Iago Desdemona's dropped handkerchief, after which she is often portrayed as sweet but clueless, and then sweet and angry. Here, from the beginning, Hillman uses the character to play up the basic immorality of the whole cast save the lovers at the center. Before a word of dialogue is uttered, we see Emilia wearily yielding to her employer's advances. Yet when she does speak, she is tough and loyal. Quattrone also is responsible for making flawed Emilia a bigger presence, especially at the end when she speaks for poor, dead Desdemona.
Similarly, Marissa Keltie's Desdemona is tougher and more self-assured than the usual run of doomed dames. Keltie captures Desdemona's unwavering love and basic innocence perfectly without being soft and squishy, and she and Cooper get a lot of mileage out of their scenes together. Only Desdemona is truly good in this version; Othello is too easily seduced by Iago's blandishments, Brabantio is a hypocrite, and Zac Jaffee's Cassio is revealed as a womanizer through his questionable flirting with the two married women.
The production is not without flaws. The men in particular deliver their lines so fast it's sometimes hard to follow. The show could use more musical variety, with a wider range of levels between "silent" and "head-splitting." Some of the blocking is awkward; Iago keeps putting his back to the audience, for example, which is especially frustrating if that puts his body between Othello's very soft voice and the ears of the audience. And the lighting is sometimes too dim to really catch all of the action and expressions.
But these quibbles don't detract from the fact that Hillman has managed to make this fast-paced Othello ultramodern and engaging while honoring and expanding upon the original themes. It has often seemed that Shakespeare anticipated World War II or Vietnam, where the generals happily used African-American soldiers to fight their battles, but recoiled at these same black men marrying their daughters. Now we can throw "don't ask, don't tell" into that mix, and nothing is lost.
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