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.

Provosts and prohibitions in WYW’s “Measure for Measure”

the body public be
A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
He can command, lets it straight feel the spur
— Claudio, Measure for Measure I.ii

Angela Nostwick’s staging of Measure for Measure takes place during the Prohibition era of 1920s America. This maps nicely will the opening conflict of the play, wherein brothels, having expanded beyond the Viennese Duke’s (Monty Joyce) willingness to entertain them, will “all our houses of resort in the suburbs be pulled down.” Rather than downplaying the initial political problem of the play, as is the norm for stagings of Measure, the What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) puts it front and center. By choosing to transgender Pompey (Samantha Fuchs), this adaptation gives us two models of femininity, to poles of female sexuality between which the play vacillates. The first are the two bawds, Mistress Overdone (Katherine Quinn) and Pompey (sometimes Thomas the Tapster), and then the two virgins, Isabella (Emaline Johnson) and Mariana (Maggie Wolfe)—and both rendered to equal extremes.

I feel that Prohibition is a productive framing period when you want to underscore the institutionalized mechanisms for policing social norms. To make this point, WYW has added an extra dance scene—well, strip tease really—by Mistress Overdone and Pompey, who get down to their skivvies (and nearly lose it all) before being arrested by Elbow (Celia Mueller). While it certainly does the work of making explicit the interest in policing of both female sexuality and homosexuality, this scene and the costuming felt to me walking that line between useful and exhibitionistic for exhibition sake. Had the costumes been of the period, something gesturing at the flapper dress that asked us to recalibrate our sense of scanty and decorous in the way that the play suggests, their sexuality and playfulness would have had more resonance. Certainly it wouldn’t have been dependent on 2015 standards of indecency, but grounded in the period it would have highlighted the fact that these norms slide and evolve over time, with time. That throughout the play Pompey and Mistress Overdone strain against various captors in order to return to one another gives the couple a sense of tenderness, but (at least for me) it was not enough to balance the skin factor.

Volts’ “Ladies on a terrasse.” Paris, 1920s.

What does help is the fact that women are constantly under assault by the male gaze and male advances throughout the play to differing degrees—the theme is constant. Lucio (Ashish Valentine) is made a more aggressive prowler than many productions I have seen are willing to commit to, perhaps confused by his description as “a fantastic.” Comparatively, Angelo (Ninos Baba) is actually the least aggressive male in the play. He is also doing the most acting, using the phrases and emphases embedded in the figures of speech to frame his delivery. In it we can hear the gradual evolution of his logic with a pace and realistic gestures to match. I commend anyone who takes on Angelo: like Antony, he is a character that if not dealt with subtlety, if not given gradual degrees to progress to an extremity of emotion or evil, he can feel either (a) very flat, reaching a fever pitch too soon in the action, or (b) go from considered counsellor to a rapacious politician with no sense given to that evolution. In either case, he can come off as illogical when in fact Angelo is a very considered and rationale figure. For example:

Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor. (II.ii)

It’s what makes him so dangerous, what makes our skin crawl when he doesn’t have to act with any force to push Isabella up against a railing or desk; what is terrifying is not the intensity, but the casualness, the sense that it takes no effort to remove agency from her. This Isabella makes a good rebuff to both his physical advances and his logic. The instinct is to react with violence and extremity, to roll around on the prop desk, to smash and clash in a fevered pitch of wit we want from a Beatrice and Benedict. To resist this mirroring and the romantic dovetailing the stichomythia of their shared scenes, is to push back against audiences’ natural inclinations for a comedy, for the union of the couple, for this play to end in marriage. The play does end in at least one marriage, but certainly not one that gives us any of the satisfaction of say Twelfth Night.

Speaking of endings, it must be said that while the troupe had one more dress rehearsal between when I say the production and their opening this Friday, there were several rough patches. For one, the pace is very slow in part I think because of a Duke, in playing two roles, is uncertain of what motivation lies at the center of his part. (And that is certainly a fair question one could ask of the play in general.) While some planned and excessively hard ass-slapping made me cringe, the final fight scene choreography seemed grossly unplanned and haphazard. These technical elements are things easily smoothed by opening night. The challenge seems to be to focus on the issue at hand, the critique of governments and institutions policing sexualities of varrying kinds, rather than the mere exhibition of those sexualities.

In this light it is crucial that the play ends on the threshold of Vienna, at the city gates, on the fringes between socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Certainly these staging choices reflect the new awareness of the micro-agressions of cat-calling, and looks directly to our Indiana neighbors and their new discriminatory legislation against the LGBTQ community. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the two pairs of female sexual identity that brought this to mind for me as a playgoer, but in the subtle coupling of the Provost (Delilah Hansen) and Escalus (Kat Fuenty), men in power but in the closet. They hold hands twice in the course of the play, when everyone else has exited, a silent insertion gesturing to the variety of sexualities in Vienna right under the nose of the Duke and Angelo. Throughout the play they exchange worried, knowing glances as the violence and policing escalate. You realize their lines are the only ones that care about the outcomes of Isabella, Claudio (Jeri Murphy), and even Barnardine (Matthew Freeman) as real people (in the play world at least) rather than their occupations or subject positions. The Provost and Escalus for me represented those good people on the edges and caught in the middle of a debate they don’t want to fight, but have to, because their legislators won’t do it on their behalf. And certainly that is reason enough to spend some of this weekend with Shakespeare and WYW.