It's funny that the most immediately novel thing about the new CalShakes Othello is that the lead role is actually played by a man. What with Woman's Will having a woman playing a man, and Impact having a woman playing Othello as a lesbian, we haven't seen much of that sort of casting lately. It's worth noting everything that's different because some of the other things that director Sean Daniels does with this version -- put it in modern dress, decorate it with bursts of discordant music, set Michael Cassio's downfall around a cooler full of beer and a boombox -- are becoming de rigueur on the Bay Area Othello scene.
And the big thing, besides the gender-unbending male lead, is Bruce McKenzie's stilted nutcase of an Iago. McKenzie is doing a risky thing in playing Iago as creepy and brusque. There's more than a hint of William Shatner in his line delivery. It's an unusual choice -- in fact, at first it's hard to tell whether it's a choice or whether McKenzie was hoping he'd get some other role in some other show -- but it starts to make sense. This Iago isn't some slickie; he's completely off his nut, seething with a fury that goes beyond the calculated gamesmanship of some Iagos, the sly charm of others. Running through the usual reasons Iago might hate Othello is pointless here. It doesn't matter whether Othello did Iago's wife, or promoted a lesser warrior over him. Iago is just insane. Which all by itself changes the play tremendously: Often Iago is played so that the audience secretly starts rooting for him. It makes things that much worse when his plans come to their stinking fruition, and the audience is busted. There's none of that here. This Iago is like watching a terrible multiple-car pileup and being helpless to stop it.
Which makes for a particularly striking contrast with Billy Eugene Jones' urbane Othello. Though he protests that he is not schooled in the ways of soft talk, this Othello was clearly a privileged child; it shows in the easy way he wins over the duke. Perhaps that's what's eating Iago: Othello is just slick, but also genuine. How these two men can profess such affection for each other is honestly a mystery. Jones' Othello is so affable a man that the transition from rationality to apoplexy seems more hairpin than usual, although Shakespeare didn't give the character much time to make the switch to begin with. Jones handles it convincingly by having his Othello continue trying, even after buying Iago's story, to overcome his misgivings about Desdemona.
And it's easy to believe that he doesn't want to have misgivings. Lemon-clad Sarah Grace Wilson is a bright Desdemona, kind and strong in the moments where she defies her father and then her husband's mysterious rage. Together they may not have the burn-it-all-down chemistry of the Impact Othello's doomed newlyweds, but they seem the sort of couple one would invite to tea, or a fancy-dress ball. And there's a moment after Othello has killed Desdemona, when he walks around holding her lifeless body, that is note-perfect.
Sadly the same cannot always be said of Jake Rodriguez' sound design. Some of the music choices are excellent, but the staccato bursts are nerve-racking, and the story needs no help in that regard.
Speaking of help, or doomed helpers, finally here is a Roderigo who makes some sense. He has always seemed the appendix of the play: He contributes little before swelling up and exploding. T. Edward Webster's Roderigo has too much energy, too little brains, and a real desire for Desdemona that is all the more pitiful; throughout the CalShakes version, one just wants the poor boy to go home, now, before anything bad happens to him. Which is one more surprising thing about this Othello.
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