Chicago Theatre Review
Not Simply About a Handkerchief
Othello – Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Jealousy, revenge, ambition and bigotry are the motifs found in Shakespeare’s early 17th century tragedy subtitled, “The Moor of Venice.” In director Jonathan Munby’s extraordinarily beautiful and powerful new production, this drama has never felt more contemporary. The play 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 long ago, as staged so brilliantly by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the events and timely themes penned by the Bard ring just as fresh and true today.
Iago is a bitter ball of hatred. He 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 infectious 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 and bloodshed is the result.
As one of the most despicable villains in literature, Iago’s viewed by his peers, as well as his wife, to be a completely honest and trustworthy man. Thus he’s able to become close to each of his victims and, through a web of lies and deceitful setups, Iago finagles and steers the tragic fate of everyone within his world. Thanks to Iago, the wrongful jealousy and ultimate revenge against Desdemona becomes Othello’s undoing when he discovers her handkerchief in Cassio’s possession (planted there by Iago). Roderigo, a foolish, young soldier, who secretly loved Desdemona before she was married, attempts to murder Cassio because of the lies Iago has told. 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 international credits, Jonathan Munby’s production (which, at almost three hours, truly flies by) brings this play up close and personal on the Courtyard Theater’s thrust stage. Alexander Dodge’s bold, sparsely designed, ever-changing military setting keeps the proceedings character-focused, even as the locales shift from the streets and war rooms of Venice to the war in Cyprus. Effectively utilizing every available inch of space, including the aisles, Munby makes the tragedy feel almost intimate, playing directly into the audience’s lap. Suddenly this is more than just a play about a handkerchief. Matt Hawkins’ fight choreography keeps the violence realistic and gut-wrenching. Munby’s particularly successful in making sure his actors are clear and articulate. The audience can fully appreciate Shakespeare’s poetic language and colorful imagery, while feeling as if they’re listening to contemporary jargon. This ultramodern feel resounds in Philip Rosenberg’s palette of light and Lindsay Jones’ sound design and original music. Linda Cho’s military costumes seal the deal that this drama is still about today’s world.
Chicago master Thespian James Vincent Meredith is bold and commanding in the title role. This actor has impressed in productions all over the city as well as in previous CST productions. Mr. Meredith displays a firm hold on the intricate language, while still portraying his character’s fiery emotional journey. All the Moor’s many shades and subtleties come through, from moments of sport and humor to the serious weightiness of leading an army to victory. He’s nicely balanced by Michael Milligan’s seemingly laid-back, quietly manipulative Iago. The actor excellently masks Iago’s intentions, playing his hand differently with each character, as needed. Mr. Milligan is always convincing, whether planting seeds of doubt and deception one minute and then turning into a perky pal the next moment. Then, frighteningly, Iago quietly seethes with anger and jealousy when left alone. As his character’s patience dwindles and his thirst for revenge grows, Milligan is very selective about those moments when passion causes him to lose control. Mr. Milligan plays this villain with a calmness that makes his Iago all the more menacing.
Luigi Sottile returns to the CST stage as handsome, likable and gullible 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 Bethany Jillard’s Desdemona. The actress plays the spunky young wife with an honesty. Her earnest simplicity makes her own tragic betrayal so sad. Jessie Fisher’s Emilia is strong, intelligent and caring. The audience empathizes with her anguish and struggle to save her mistress. And Fred Geyer, a remarkably talented young actor-about-town, is a very likable, somewhat nerdy Roderigo. As the audience watches this clueless man becoming ever drawn into Iago’s lies and manipulation, we know the outcome won’t be good.
For many audience members, this play is one of Shakespeare’s more familiar stories. CST, under Jonathan Munby’s sensitive, energetic direction, has found a way to make this “Othello” fresh and timely, putting their own unique spin on the Bard’s work and reinventing this tragedy as a contemporary tale of jealousy, bigotry and revenge. They’ve mounted an exciting production that both tells a story known by most, while still offering a number of surprises. Mr. Munby manages to bring a new sensibility to this piece. Setting the production against the backdrop of modern day conflicts, this tale of jealousy and revenge feels even more contemporary and cautionary than ever.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 18-April 10 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater on their Courtyard stage on Navy Pier.
Tickets are available at the CST box office, by calling them at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com