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Disturbing the Gates Of Reason--A New Look at Othello


Static opening scenes give way to overzealous action in Shakespeare Theatre Company's Free For All Othello directed by Ron Daniels, known best for his direction of contemporary operas. Daniels has cast Faran Tahir, a Pakistani-American actor from television and film, as the Moor Othello. The Dresser finds this casting reasonable except when Tahir is pushed to emotional excess and then what he says does not pass for understandable English. When he speaks normally, one hears that he does not enunciate and therefore final consonants float way from his delivery. In another play where words do not hold the weight of Shakespeare's carefully conceived text where so many lines resonant with stunning wisdom, the sound that Tahir produces in high-speed word spills would add to who the character is--a foreigner.

Jay Whittaker plays a commanding Iago, the ensign to Othello who brings down the successful general by whittling away Othello's belief in and love for his new bride Desdemona. Whittaker has the capacity to incite an audience member to leap out of his seat and onto to the stage to strangle Iago. How could this character be so evil? How could Whittaker be so tuned in to Iago's dark spirit? He's an excellent actor.
Somewhat disturbing is how brashly Madeleine Rogers plays Desdemona. Given that Director Daniels has constructed a modern-day timeframe where the costumes of the men look like World War II military uniforms--maybe Nazi uniforms, Desdemona's behavior seems aggressive and more the way a woman of the 21st century would behave. However, her white costumes that cover more than reveal suggest the purity expected of this well-known Shakespearean character. Her costumes in Cypress also hint at Muslim dress as if she were trying to fit in there and with her formerly Muslim husband.

Cassio (played by Patrick Vaill), whom Iago turns into his pawn, seems like a crybaby. So that when he anguishes, "Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial." (Act Ii, Scene 3) The Dresser merely perked up her ears at these famous lines and felt nothing but disgust for Cassio who brought on Othello's wrath by drinking and brawling. Never mind that Iago lured Cassio into the situation that Cassio knew initially to refuse.

Shakespeare uses the word honest 52 times in this play and many times Iago is referred to as an honest man. In Act III, Scene 3, Iago and Othello have an extended conversation about whether Cassio is an honest man. The Dresser was taken aback at how much the audience laughed at this conversation which was condemning not only Cassio but Othello's wife. Under the 45th president of the United States, truth and authenticity have been shredded into unrecognizable pieces by the constant use of lies and innuendo. The Dresser supposes that the laughter, which seemed to increase as the word honest was overused and emphasized, acquired a life of its own and perhaps that is the mark of a director tuned into his time.

The favorite scenes of Daniels' production of Othello were those of soldiers singing, dancing, and fighting. Kudos to choreographer Robb Hunter, Cliff Williams III, and fight captain Robbie Gay. The least favorite element was lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Often the lights were in the audience eyes.
Fred Marchant's "Call to Prayer" addresses loss of faith and that strikes at the heart of what happens to Othello. By taking on the faith of the people he lives among and worse by believing a man like Iago, Othello allows himself to lose faith in his wife who loves and trusts him. By giving his production of Othello a hint of Muslim trappings (how his wife and her attendant dressed and Othello using a special cloth to pray on), Ron Daniels has managed to shift a very complex psychological tragedy to a current day enigma. The Dresser suggests that Shakespeare's brainwashed protagonist in Daniels' production makes one think of the murderous terrorists brainwashed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.


It begins in what one imagines as desert but is nothing empty.
For a second or two the air hints at the night it has risen from.

Then the call passes from voice to voice, saying this is yours,
take it on the next, as if these words were waves in a storm,

each gaining on the other, growing stronger when the touch,
the song overtaking dawn at the rim of the valley just before

the words enter the old city by the gates of reason, finding
the byways piled high with what no one believes anymore.

Stray cats, arching their backs when they hear it, cry out in pain.
We throw open the green metal shutters, and try to listen again.

by Fred Marchant
from Said Not Said

"Call to Prayer" copyright © 2017 by Fred Marchant

Photo Credits: Jennifer Reiley


Comments (1)

M Morris:

Dear Karren, thank you for taking me to the theatre. And the wonderful writing. So intriguing, this!

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