A Noise Within’s production of “Othello” proves Shakespeare’s words are timeless and hold social importance even today. Jessica Kubansky’s direction sparks a conversation of racism, gender politics, and domestic violence in a surprisingly intimate experience that takes place at war.
Although the production took a contemporary approach, it incorporated elements of a traditional Shakespearean production that complimented the production. Frederica Nascimento’s scenic design in the first act was reminiscent of the Globe stage where Shakespeare’s plays first took place. Instead of relying on props like in a typical contemporary production, they adapted to a traditionally blank stage and relished in the words of Shakespeare. Contemporary aspects of theatrical production, including flats, tables and a myriad of other moveable set pieces, were eventually introduced, however, the emptiness of the stage established the importance of audience and actor connection.
Moments of physical interactions with the audience were beautiful. In a jovial moment with rowdy soldiers, a ping pong ball falls off the stage and at an audience member’s feet. The ball flies back at the stage and is caught by Cassio (Brian Henderson) at the end of his speech where he defends his sobriety while in a drunken state. Ad-libbing this moment into the world of the play brought the audience and the actors closer together.
This is how Shakespeare should be done: in the moment.
Each actor participates in this moment-by-moment performance, especially Iago (Michael Manuel), who directly addresses the audience and establishes a relationship necessary for the play.
“I called a lot of my friends that played Iago and they sort of said, ‘It’s not gonna really happen until you get your scene partner, and your scene partner is the audience,’” said Manuel.
Kubansky, who also directed “Measure for Measure” with A Noise Within, successfully brought the play into the present with a respect for the language of the piece. Some words and actions were more weighted than before. Every mention of the word “black” heightens the racism in the story and displays the nuances of racism today. In collaboration with gender-bending powerful male roles, xenophobic comments speak more to the intersectionality of racism. Brabantia (Bonita Friedericy) says, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.” The line, that traditionally belongs to the male character Brabantio, now shows that racism can come not just white men, but women as well.
The production also respectfully tackles domestic violence. During rehearsals and performances, the complicit nature of those witnessing domestic violence on stage portrays the necessity for people to take action. It is hard to witness as an audience member and an actor alike.
“I was stunned and really moved by especially the men in our cast and the way they respond to the scene where Desdemona is slapped,” Angela Gulner (Desdemona) said. “They had a really hard time making the decision in the scene not to do something because everything in them wanted to react, but the reality is that for women and men who are abused, people are complicit in the abuse.”
Where the production fails is in the lack of care given to suicide. At the end of the production, a gunshot comes quickly and unexpectedly. The production only warned of a gunshot but did not explain the purpose of it, resulting in a distasteful suicide that could have been done differently or with more warning.
Certain attempts of making the show contemporary felt forced and unnecessary. This includes the incorporation of smartphones and the sign of the cross at every mention of religion. The sign of the cross, native to Catholicism, had no context in the production. Smartphones were used properly for lighting purposes but were a distraction when characters used them to film or take photographs. The one moment light from a smartphone enhanced the experience was when Iago flashed the light on himself in a pitch-black theatre, creating a haunting shadow on the backdrop.
Beyond the usage of smartphones, lighting designer Rose Malone played with light to indicate asides and characters’ inner struggles. In collaboration with sound designer John Zalewski, they emphasized these moments with unsettling sounds and light flickers. When Othello (Wayne T. Carr) falls from an epileptic shock, the audience also experiences the anxiety and build with staccato sound and light changes focused on him.
As Lodovica delivers her last words, Iago sits in anguish, guilt, and sadness, which is heart-wrenching to witness. After the ups and downs of the production, the intimacy between the characters and the audience culminates a lasting feeling of self-reflection. We reflect not only on the tragedy of Othello, but also on the perspectives of racism and misogyny painted with the words of Shakespeare that still feel difficult to carry hundreds of years later.
“Othello” runs now through April 28th at A Noise Within. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.