Chicago Theatre Review
A Play About a Handkerchief
Othello – The Gift Theatre
Jealousy, revenge, ambition and bigotry all play a big part in Shakespeare’s early 17th century tragedy subtitled, “The Moor of Venice.” This tragedy primarily revolves around four characters: Othello, the Moorish general in the Venetian army; his lovely, innocent new wife Desdemona; Othello’s jealous, conniving ensign Iago; and his handsome young lieutenant Cassio. Each character’s tragic destiny is manipulated by the begrudging villain, Iago. And although Shakespeare’s drama was originally set in ancient times the events and its message still ring true today.
Iago secretly hates Othello for many reasons. He’s jealous of Cassio’s promotion when Iago believes that his commander should’ve promoted him to lieutenant. He’s envious of Cassio’s intelligence, good looks and obvious charisma. Iago’s also secretly prejudiced against the Moor, perhaps because of race, perhaps because he believes Othello may have once had a fling with Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maidservant. Whatever the reason, “the green-eyed monster” rears its ugly head everywhere and revenge is the result.
As one of the most despicable villains in literature, Iago’s perceived by his peers to be a completely honest, trustworthy man. Thus he’s able to become close to each of his victims and, through a web of lies, Iago finagles and steers the fate of everyone within his world. Thanks to Iago, wrongful revenge against Desdemona becomes Othello’s undoing when he discovers her handkerchief in Cassio’s possession (planted there by Iago). Roderigo, a minor character who secretly loved Desdemona before she was married, attempts to kill Cassio because of Iago’s lies. Cassio also falls for Iago’s falsehoods and is almost killed as a result. Even Iago’s wife Emilia believes her husband’s lies and ends up suffering for her gullibility.
As a director with a long list of impressive credits, Jonathan Berry’s production (which, at almost three hours, might’ve benefited from some cutting) brings this play up close and personal in this intimate, 40-seat theatre. He’s pretty successful in keeping his actors articulate so that the audience can appreciate the language and the Bard’s imagery. Sometimes, however, diction suffers in Berry’s goal to keep his production sounding contemporary. That transformation makes the Elizabethan verse sound more Chicagoan. Dan Stratton’s simple, but effective flexible scenic design, consisting of four movable, white floor-to-ceiling panels, and a couple large white wooden cubes, offer a certain sleek, high-tech look that works well on this wide, but shallow stage. Berry smartly choreographs his cast to manage all set changes within the production’s rhythm. This ultramodern feel resounds in Sarah Hughey’s palette of light and Christian Gero’s sound design. Stephanie Cluggish’s costumes seal the deal that we’re in today’s world.
Kareem Bandealy makes his bold debut at The Gift Theatre in the title role. The actor has been impressed in productions all over Chicago at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, CST and TimeLine, to name a few. This actor displays a firm command of the language, his character’s fiery emotional journey and all of the Moor’s many shades and subtleties in between. He’s nicely balanced by Michael Patrick Thornton’s laid-back, quietly manipulative Iago. The actor uses his wheelchair as an extension of his steady, quietly seething anger and jealousy. As his character’s patience dwindles and his thirst for revenge grows, Thornton is very selective about the moments when passion causes him to lose control. Primarily the actor plays this villain with a surprising calmness that makes him all the more menacing.
Jay Worthington is a handsome, likable young Cassio. The audience constantly fears for his safety, as Iago manipulates his future, and cringes when things look darkest for him. The same is true for lovely Brittany Burch’s Desdemona. The actress plays the young wife with an honesty and an earnest simplicity that makes her own tragic betrayal so sad. Darci Nalepa’s Emilia is intelligent and caring. The audience empathizes with her anguish and inability to save her mistress and ultimately mourns her loss.
With a play so familiar to theatre goers, the Gift Theatre has found a way to make “Othello” fresh and timely, putting their own unique spin on the Bard’s work and reinventing this tragedy for their first Shakespearean production. They’ve mounted an exciting production that both tells a story everyone knows while still offering many surprises and bringing a new sensibility to the piece. Setting their production against the backdrop of modern day conflicts, this tale of jealousy and revenge feels especially contemporary and cautionary.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 17-August 24 by the Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com