William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice” is possibly one of the Bard’s most insightful plays, most sadly relevant and even more so controversial. As a study of human psychology, it rivals “Richard III” in its power and precision. Where “Richard III” follows the path of a megalomaniac who takes over a kingdom, “Othello,” by contrast, observes a sociopath, Iago (Zeb Mims), setting out to destroy the object of his obsession: the war hero General Othello (Ben Hart).
I have long thought one of the many misunderstandings about this show is to view it as Othello’s story. Really, it is Iago’s world, and everyone else is his plaything. Think of it like Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”: Mozart is the title character because he is Salieri’s obsession, but it is not Mozart’s story, it is Salieri’s.
So welcome to the world of an embittered, vengeful young man who feels passed over for a promotion he should have received. Everything Othello wants comes with ease: success, accolades, respect, power, even a beautiful, adoring young wife. Iago is married to Emilia (Alissa Fetherolf), who he views as a tool or possession, but not as a partner by any stretch of imagination. Othello, on the other hand, has just eloped with Desdemona (Courtney Rickert), the stunningly beautiful and hopelessly besotted daughter of Brabantio (Quentin Proulx), a local senator.
Proulx’s Brabantio is justifiably not pleased with the turn of events and delivers a convincing performance of a parent at first scared for his child’s safety and well being, then angry to be treated thus. It is probably the most convincing performance I have seen him give to date. His brooding anger and necessary shifting gears to his role as senator in the face of an impending invasion are phenomenal to watch.
Joy James appears as The Duchess and gives ample evidence for the argument for women as heads of state. She has grace, poise, and there is no question she is in control of the room and situation. Let’s elect Joy James in 2020—she already knows how to perform the part.
Othello accepts his orders to secure a desert garrison against invasion and departs to his command post, bringing Desdemona and Emilia along with Iago and Cassio (Wesley McAdams), Othello’s right hand and another object of Iago’s jealousy. Cassio is so easily manipulated into going with the crowd, because he’s always been one of the boys, it is almost unnerving how little backbone he actually has. When Iago eggs him into a drunken brawl with Montano (Julie Tyslan), Othello breaks up the ruckus.
Ben Hart stepped into this role a week ago. Originally, Tré Cotten returned to Wilmington to play the part, but due to health issues stepped down shortly before opening night. It necessitated a week’s delay in opening the show. Hart picked up the baton and ran with it. So with a week’s preparation, we see Hart in what is appropriately a battlefield promotion. Othello is an incredibly nuanced and complex character many actors have spent years, If not decades, preparing to play.
Hart is young, but he is very handsome. Those two pieces work in his favor: His Othello is not as experienced with women as he is with fighting. Rather than thinking of Othello as the seasoned warrior who has conquered hearts and minds in addition to countries (all Shakespearean puns intended), Hart’s Othello is more like the honor student who gets his first girlfriend and has no idea how to respond to such a strange, wonderful and potentially wounding anomaly in his life.
It is the strangulation scene where Hart’s Othello really soars. Director Mirla Criste’s staging for the scene is especially dynamic. Played perpendicularly to the audience, Hart straddles Desdemona, and the audience sees for the first time the power he has to wield as a solider and general. The ensuing actions—remorse, revelation and retribution—are his shining moments of conviction.
Mims’ Iago isn’t just using his wife and Cassio to engineer Othello’s misery. One of Desdemona’s former suitors, Roderigo (Jeremy Weir), is being strung along by Iago with promises to secure Desdemona in the end.
“The costuming really makes the military environment clear,” my date commented. “I hadn’t realized but you really do get a sense of how much civilians are the outsiders.”
Yes. That’s a key piece to all of this. Outsiders: civilians, women, Othello; Iago sees himself as an ubermensch (albeit almost 300 years before Nietzsche, but still a sense of superiority didn’t start in 1883). He is clearly outside of and above all others. Dori Nason’s costuming creates the visual template for the audience to follow in this case, and she drives home the importance of belonging and the glaring faux pas for anyone who does not blend in. Roderigo in his business-casual slacks just can’t compete with the magnificence of Othello, with his chest full of medals or the impressive, coiled potential power of soldiers in uniform with sidearms that surround his love interest.
Mims’ Iago is a nasty piece of work. There really is no nice way to describe him. Perhaps what makes him so interesting and captivating is Mims doesn’t play him as a caricature of evil. When he breaks the fourth wall to explain to the audience what he is up to, it is neither a plea for forgiveness nor a proud declaration of power. It is quite simply stating the obvious facts: He, Iago, is wronged. Now he, Iago, is setting the record straight. He, Iago, is making sure he gets what’s his and those around him, who are too dumb to be left in control of their own lives, get what is coming. Mims is effectively driving this bus and he leaves no doubt for the audience to understand as much is true. He makes sure to radiate self-interest and a dispassionate observation of those “lesser” than him.
I think of Criste as a dancer/choreographer first and foremost. That emphasis on the physical is perhaps the greatest tool in her arsenal with “Othello.” All the supporting cast are constantly involved in activities—especially Lily Zuckerman, who starts the show filming an encounter with her hand-held device (it takes place in a modern-day setting); and later she serves as another character who cleans up from the party. She is but one example of a supporting cast that paints a picture of the busy life swirling about Othello and Iago, a real world where each person has something they need to be doing at all times. However, as far as physical staging goes, the fight scenes are not very believable. Frankly, in an intimate space like the Cube, they need to be heightened so failure becomes a disruption in the suspension of disbelief.
“The Tragedy of Othello” remains a fascinating piece of dramatic literature that can illuminate our human experience from many different angles. It remains pertinent and any opportunity to be with the work and experience it especially live is an opportunity to grasp by the throat.
May 9-12, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun at 3 p.m.
Ruth & Bucky Stein Theatre
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $28 • thalianhall.org
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