WYW’s “Othello”: A Rainbow Connection

“…in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing,
To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on!
It is a judgment maim’d and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practises of cunning hell,
Why this should be.”
— Brabantio I.iii

Iago is the villain in Shakespeare’s works that most gets under my skin. The only thing that is clear about him is that he does “so hate the Moor.” He gives us upwards of four possible motives for infecting his general with jealousy—that he had been passed over for promotion, that she may have slept with his wife, anxiety about miscegenation, and that she is in general a poor leader—that it is unclear if any of these are at the core of his ire. He offers then a good definition of evil: that for which no motive for hate can be found, a hate that operates without perceived cause. Making the Moor a lesbian woman in the play, as the What You Will Shakespeare Company did this weekend, anchors Iago’s hate even if he cannot articulate it to us: that a Black female is above his station threatens both his military and sexual identities.

This casting choice, aside from anchoring Othello in a cultural moment, makes a number of other aspects about this play ring differently as well. Consider also that Desdemona’s (Megan Scharlau) father, Brabantio (Samantha Fuchs), and the Duke (Madeline Whitesell) are also coded female. The accusations of “witchcraft” that the Moor is accused sits very differently in the play, more overtly associated with medieval female mysticism like that of King Edward II’s wife than the photo-Orientalism of the Ottoman Turks. The play’s emphasis on what is “natural” gets more directly linked with religion rather than race in light of the Supreme Court ruling Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right. In the wake of the SCOTUS rulings hotly behind the racially-motivated shooting in Charleston, the line “if she be blessed, she would never have loved the Moor” clanged in my ear. Never have loved the Moor because she was black? Because she was a woman? Both are viable answers to what it means to not be blessed in the eyes of God, putting these two major recent events in conversation with one another in a way that the media has yet to do.

Othello (Laura Robertson) and Desdemona (Megan Scharlau).

Beyond the surface casting choices, I found this production to be one of the most balanced in terms of actorly skill and attention to text of WYW’s spring season. Iago (Luis Alcantara) came out at the top of his pith, and I was concerned he would have nowhere else to go emotionally. In fact, he grew on me, moving from a guns-blazing stir-the-pot fellow to a considered sociopath by developing an unsettling and pointed quietness by the end of the production. He never lost his like of pointing and directing in his gestures, signaling the militarism and hierarchization that importantly frames the action of the play. His foil, Cassio (Orion Lovell), the overt and conscientious playboy to all women regardless of their orientation, could easily be confused as an inconsiderate lush. I think this production nails his characterization: in a world in which we are taught to be suspect first, as audiences we quickly misdiagnose Cassio’s virtues of sincerity and earnestness as symptoms of a larger, unscrupulous agenda. Lovell’s ability to give Cassio both charm and utter, world-altering dismay to first his removal from command and then to Iago’s attack on him (not to mention the spiking of his drink) by play’s end gives us some ease that Cassio is the one left to rule in Cyprus.

There were a number of other small and smart moments in the production that suggest a careful and detail-oriented approach by co-directors Jaclyn Marta and Matthew James Marquez:

  • Memory: The troupe is beginning to play with the space of the University Place Christian Church more overtly, such as in their recent Macbeth. Here they did a tight theatre-in-the-round set-up that afforded experimentation with their increasingly sophisticated lighting options. Both the courtship scene as described by Othello (Laura Robertson) and Cassio’s temptation of Desdemona as described by Iago are bathed in a blue light to signal the extent of what is being imagined inside Othello’s head. It is a powerful device to lend the character greater interiority that is still informed by the text.
  • Militarism: While watching I was looking for more overt signals to the military context of the play. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized the degree to which gesture was freighting the influence of militarism on the individual characters. Perhaps one of my favorite moments was the interpretation of the lover’s quarrel over Cassio in III.iii: distracted by the business of running a war campaign through her cellphone, Othello is pestered by Desdemona to hear out Cassio. Rather than sycophancy, Robertson found space to use the responses to Desdemona’s admittedly inappropriate influences over military structure as sarcasm. Eye-rolling, frustration, and mock-force play up the irony of “I will deny thee nothing” and “I am obedient,” economically giving us a realistic moment of spousal friction necessary to make these characters human, make us side with and root for them, before they begin to undo one another. It is an important playful set-up to the extent of Othello’s strength when the mock-force becomes real force, full face slaps, and aggressive shoving about when Othello first confronts Desdemona about infidelity in IV.i: “I would make her turn: / Sir, she can turn, and turn, and yet go on, / And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep; / And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient, / Very obedient.” It is a creative approach to these imbedded stage directions to physically turn Desdemona, alongside the echoes of earlier “obedience,” that lends their relationship and the play coherence.
  • Willows: Desdemona’s willow song is a signal moment in this play, not unlike the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet or the madness scene in Macbeth. Played as if in shock or lost in memory, the song can easily evacuate the tenuous agency that Desdemona has developed in the course of the play. Without that agency, Othello is made simply a brute killing an unknowing innocent and these characters lose the complex richness that made them relatable in the first place. Scharlau gives us a doe-eyed Desdemona for most of the production: aware, playful, but smacking of nothing serious. Here she creates a very calm moment with a thoughtful interpretation of the willow song, sung confidently and only occasionally incorporating a minor key without exoticizing Barbary’s song too much. Suffering from allergies, it was calm and lovely enough that I found myself working hard to keep from sniffling and disturbing the moment. Her abrupt turn in the song to say “what’s that‽” made the whole audience gasp and several of us jump up in our seats. I had never envisioned this moment in this way, but we were in fact taken in by a North African song and story, entranced as Desdemona must have first been by Othello, and perhaps experiencing what entrances them about one another.

Often you don’t necessarily get as thoughtful a production when the exigency, the timeliness of its subject matter, is so immediate. The context for me as I meditate this morning is the recent SCOTUS ruling and Charleston. That we need to talk about racialized privilege and the policing of bodies in this country has never been more present and more difficult, and yet again Shakespeare gave me a way to link these together and space to meditate on those links. If we can make any claims to how theatre is political, it is in the way it gives us imaginative room to contemplate frictions in our realities. In skimming through the program, I was struck that not only were the actors playing Desdemona and Cassio in a relationship, but that the actors playing Iago and Othello are getting married in a month’s time. No doubt the struggles they have and will face as an interracial couple may’ve informed their performances (speaking of motive), but certainly it brings home again that these dramas have direct bearings on our reality. I can say that I needed this play, in this way, right now. As a summer production the audience was scanter than it might have been; I hope the What You Will Shakespeare Company considers re-mounting it for the fall, as I think others need this play, in this way, too.

She that is not of woman born; or, WYW’s “Macbeth”

In sixteenth-century England, to go to the theatre was in essence to attend a dress rehearsal for the monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. To see a play by Shakespeare was ostensibly getting to see a play that might in fact go before her—getting to share in the same political or identity question that the leaders of the land might also find engaging. All the most interesting then that William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was one of the first plays likely performed for the new monarch, King James I of England and VI of Scotland, in a new century. Likely composed in the last year of Elizabeth’s life, the play overtly grapples with questions of governance, gender, and the performance of these identities within the eager public sphere. It is just this confluence of performed and projected identities that the What You Will Shakespeare Company’s (WYW) production of Macbeth interrogates this weekend only at the University Place Christian Church.

The basement of this building is huge, with a small proscenium stage on one end and a “discovery space” entranceway with three steps and railings on the other. Typically WYW productions here block their performances around this discovery space, using it as the primary entranceway and vanishing point for spectators. This is the first time I’ve seen them design the set with these two architectural elements set stage-left and -right of the main playing space, which was demarcated by two rows of chairs facing opposite one another and the action taking place in-between. It is a smart choice for a number of reasons: as a playgoer you watch the reactions of your fellow attendees directly across from you as much as the play action, you are made aware of one’s own performance as an audience member, and you are implicated in the projecting onto Macbeth the murderous action you want or at least expect him to take. ‘Cause who doesn’t know the Scottish play? But in this arrangement, we as playgoers as much as the characters within the fiction of the play are responsible for Macbeth’s descent. The arrangement thus elegantly posits the question: to what extent is Macbeth’s community implicated in the massacre of Scotland’s elite order?

And certainly there is something greatly amiss in Scotland beyond the Macbeths’ vaulting ambition. The opening scene of the play is of Macbeth (Tom Fornander) returning from a battle, having killed a supposed traitor we know not why. Several insertions of (what I believe are) Wiccan prayers to the Mother Goddess were included throughout, including just before this traditional opening scene. Here the witches (John Clishem, Kim Gasiciel, Celia Mueller) are every(wo)men, appealing to a mother goddess to “heal” them and their nation. This added rhetoric of healing positions the witches as representations of a kind of universal corrective power, a systemic resolving force emanating from nature’s constant move toward equilibrium. In this light the witches become sympathetic, desiring only an end to death, violence, and destruction that the elite Scottish regime seems to leave in its wake. Hecate is remade metaphorically into Mother Nature. The witches also double as the murderers, solving some of the play’s gaps. One of the witches (Celia Mueller) in her mannerisms routinely resists the dirty work they have to do, and the opening story about the drowned sailor is one of woe to which her companions try to cheer her. The mysterious third murderer of Banquo (Matthew Marquez) seems to appear out of nowhere in the text; I’ve seen some versions putting Macbeth or his wife in this role. Here, it is simply the resistant witch, finally peer-pressured into the killing, but at the murder of Macduff’s children, is horrified and filled the basement with shrieks. In being willing to see the witches as forces of order rather than chaos, the production solves seeming staging incongruities neatly.

The most significant intervention of the production, however, is the approach to gender in the casting choices. For a student troupe perhaps more than any other kind do you have to work with the bodies you’ve got. Thankfully, since all of Shakespeare’s players were men and expected to regularly play cross-gendered parts, girls playing boys never seems odd in these productions. What may have been bourne out of necessity the production decided to take seriously, seemingly because the play is overtly invested in whether or not “are you a man.” Certainly the witches and their added mother goddess rhetoric foregrounds this, but a number of other textual substitutions we made. I noted at least two in which Lady Macbeth refers to a dead or lost daughter, in one case an overt substitution for “father.”

Macduff (Tori Stukins) is also intentionally transgendered, enriching her character development at the end of act four. When she discovers her husband and children (children she has actually carried herself) have been murdered, Malcolm (Clayton Gentilcore) implores that Macduff hold her tears and “dispute it like a man.” MacDuff responded:

I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man…
Oh, I could play the woman with mine eyes
And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword’s length set him; if he ‘scape,
Heaven forgive him too!

To which all the sleepy, sociopathic, Alan Rickman-esque Malcolm can say to her is, “This tune goes manly.” It is a brilliant turn to make Macbeth’s murderer not of woman born but also a woman, no matter how uncomfortable it seems for her to carry his head and crown back to Malcolm in order to re-establish a male (rather than female) succession.

The production is incredibly consistent in these small details when it approaches how both gender identities are constructed and the ways in which Macbeth himself seems a green-screen, adopting whichever identity he is given that seems to stick best. The only snag in the show is the powerhouse herself, Lady Macbeth, played by Megan Scharlau. I hesitate to say it, but Scharlau may simply be too talented for her own good. As I have mentioned previously, she has a strong sense of timing in terms of entrances and dialogue that interiorizes her character. In her first major “unsex me” speech at the end of act one, she paces calmly yet with intention as she puts on makeup, reinforcing her performed gender identity rather than unravelling in. That “come thick night” is timed to her application of a brown pencil to her eyebrows is rather brilliant; whether Scharlau or director Orion Lovell’s idea, the simple choice to reinforce rather than undermine her gendered identity was powerful. What’s more, she isn’t overbearing: Scharlau knows how to hold still and listen as a character, and twice the fact that Macbeth gives her a blade rather than her taking it from him carves out space for her character to be sympathetic. Best was her continued presence in the playing space between her sleep-walking scene and her death. She is everpresent over the intervening action, crumbling psychologically as Macbeth’s political aspirations do the same. Her understated distress accrued empathy with her extended time on the stage rather than through the shock-and-awe of spectacular madness.

This is not to say that there weren’t a few hiccups, but these were mostly on account of the lights being unreliable. Truth be told, the cast didn’t miss a beat the numerous times the lights dropped unintentionally—the intentional blackouts were well-chosen when they worked. But then again, it is the Scottish play, the cursed play whose action after the first scene takes place almost entirely at night anyway. That, and the tornadoes touching down across southern Illinois just at the time the dress rehearsal started made it a rather perfect night be on Macbeth’s long, darkened heath. Part of me hopes that when you go either tonight or tomorrow night—because dear reader, you should most definitely see this Macbeth—that it storms for you, too.