Modern-day Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ Interpretation Puzzling

(Because of Word Press Upgrade bugs, site was unavailable April 7-16, and this review was not posted during the run. Sorry for the delay/inconvenience. – Lynn Venhaus)

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Shakespeare’s “green-eyed monster” theme is timeless and universal, yes, but a puzzling modern interpretation of “Othello” by St. Louis Shakespeare did not best serve this epic tragedy.

Poor production quality, uneven casting and misguided, underdeveloped character portrayals didn’t help convey the transition to the 21st century.

Nevertheless, the show featured several strong performances and good fight choreography staged by Todd Gillenardo.

If you want to say something about inherent racism then and now, then say something powerfully. For all the talk in the press release about turning this 17th century story upside down with a contemporary slant, director Patrice Foster seemed to take the traditional story route. I disagreed with the execution of their original concepts, which were not all followed through.

Setting the play, which takes place in Venice and Cyprus, in the 21st Century made no sense whatsoever. Where are we? What world are we in? And why?

The cities were pretty much interchangeable. Jared Korte’s minimalist set design reflected none of the exotic foreign world of this tale. Were we to ascertain this through the Turkish music? The bedroom more akin to a young single’s first apartment? If you are tackling xenophobia, then show it!

Based on another source material, “Un Capitano Moro” by Cinthio, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is believed to have been written around 1603. The Bard took the big emotions of life – love, jealousy, revenge, betrayal and loss – to illustrate bigotry, showing how a Moorish general in the Venetian army could be revered for his military prowess and then disdained for marrying a Caucasian.

The couple can’t be happy because their enemy sets up a tangled web of deceit and manipulation in order to destroy their union.

His miffed ensign Iago schemes to convince Othello that his wife Desdemona is having an affair with former suitor Cassio, supposedly in an effort for Roderigo to woo her instead, but really, for him to surpass Othello in power and prestige.

In a towering performance, Reginald Pierre is compelling as the African general whose jealousy and misplaced allegiance prove to be his downfall. The larger-than-life role fit Pierre, who is a master at delivering Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. A veteran of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and Rebel and Misfits Productions’ two immersive Shakespeare presentations, Pierre commands attention no matter what role.

He glided persuasively between scenes portraying the victorious general, passionate newlywed and how he’s too trusting of what he’s told. Alas, Othello allowed the lies to get inside his head, and then is doomed. Pierre was convincing in his struggles and how he grappled with betrayal.

Bridgette Bassa said her lines well as Desdemona, but physically, her petite stature is such a sharp contrast to Pierre’s height, and they did not have much chemistry. Nevertheless, the bedroom death scene is brimming with intense emotions as Othello seethes with rage and Desdemona pleads for her life, even though they changed the killing method.

While Bassa has often been cast in roles she has been too young or too old for and pulled them off, Desdemona’s appearance is wrong here. She looks like a teenager in a simple junior frock and summer wedges that don’t visually establish a sultry woman.  

Phil Leveling smartly portrayed the complexities of Cassio, realizing his reputation is ruined and how he’s been used. As the rich suitor Roderigo, Jesse Munoz had the right approach, and Will Pendergast and Victor Mendez suited their soldier roles.

Troublesome is Cynthia Pohlson’s decision to portray Iago as broad as a Disney villain. If you view Iago, Othello’s ambitious, bitter and sneaky ensign as a more cunning figure, then you might be as disappointed as I was, particularly at the intrusive cackling and the exaggerated street gang member moves.

As his wife Emilia, Hillary Gokenbach grew into the role, and had a superb second act.

A company who has Shakespeare in the title should be able to work with inexperienced cast members on how to not deliver the Bard’s lines in sing-song fashion, which often happens.

The challenges of Shakespeare need to be overcome if an ensemble is to be convincing. It didn’t help that some of the well-meaning supporting cast players were too young for their parts – Brad Kinzel as Desdemona’s furious dad Brabantio and Mike Stephens as the Duke of Venice.

Circling back to the stumbling block of the modern setting, if the deception hinges on an embroidered handkerchief, switching the era to the 21st century makes no sense because no one uses handkerchiefs any more, and really haven’t for 50 years. This is a relic of the past that’s key to the original story but useless in new version.

In production values, Ted Drury’s sound design was fine, but the subpar staging didn’t establish the setting, and the party dance scene wasn’t as festive as it should have been. The costumes appeared to be from people’s closets, except for bulk military camoflauge outfits.

If Shakespeare presentations require fight choreographers, should not they focus on line delivery as well? Character development is always crucial.

Unlocking the meaning of Shakespeare is as thrilling as recognizing the source of the Shakespeare phrases that’s become part of the modern lexicon, and when everyone can bring those words to life, it makes a world of difference.

The new performance space at Tower Grove Baptist Church has possibilities. I hope the future bodes well there.

St. Louis Shakespeare presented “Shakespeare’s Othello” April 5-13 at Tower Grove Baptist Church, 4257 Magnolia. For more information, visit www.stlshakespeare.org

3 Replies to “Modern-day Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ Interpretation Puzzling”

  1. So very well observed. It was not only a challenging and uncomfortable process but sadly the product displayed as much as well. Thank you for your keen critique, very on point.

    1. Thank you Bridgette for this message.
      It gives me no pleasure to say those things, but I felt I had to — and I am sorry you, along with other cast members, had such a difficult period. I have heard some things after my review was published, and I feel your pain. I know you, Reggie and other cast members can do such good work.
      I hope your next endeavor is a satisfying one. I thought your work in “Tribes” and “The Little Foxes” was outstanding last year.
      Sincerely,
      Lynn Venhaus

  2. I appreciate that Lynn. Tribes meant so much to me. And sometimes this is about learning what parts NOT to take, though I did do my best to tell Des’ story as truthfully as I could and to the best of my ability given the circumstances. That’s what every storyteller tries to do I hope. Thanks for supporting theater and for your thoughts, it’s important critiques aren’t one sided and I appreciate the honesty and courage in yours.

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