Thursday, August 30, 2012

Othello, at SF State

All the most powerful characters in Othello hate the Moor of the title.  Brabantio, a Venetian senator and father to Desdemona, calls Othello "an abuser of the world" for marrying his daughter in secret. For him, only witchcraft could explain Desdemona's sudden deviance. Desdemona must have been "abused, stol'n from me, and corrupted by spells and medicines bought of mountebanks." How else could she "have run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou"? Iago, as a mere lieutenant in the army, is lower in social rank than both Brabantio and Othello, but Shakespeare's most notorious villain is of course the most powerful character in the play, and he expresses his loathing in typical straight-up fashion: "I hate the Moor." 

Brabantio hates Othello because Othello is a Moor from Africa, a race that Shakespeare's audience would have considered lesser, barbaric and unfit to mix with nobility, particularly nobility from the ultra-posh Venice. Iago hates Othello because the two were competing for a promotion that Othello got. But in Steve Bologna's current production of the tragedy, his master's thesis project at SF State, there's another reason to despise Othello: The dude's just downright despicable.

Othello's race doesn't come into play as much in Bologna's production, which features a very racially diverse cast and even some cross-gender casting. This Othello is supposed to be post-apocalyptic, far removed from some of the restrictive social norms and prejudices that governed Shakespeare's day. Confusingly, however, other long lost norms, such as the routine brutalization of wives by husbands, are retained, as the plot would not make sense without them. In some ways, then, this production picks and chooses what's in period and what's out of time almost as a matter of convenience.

Though the play's original racial dynamics are more or less gone, Othello is odious in a new way because performer Brett Hunt makes him so. When he defends his marriage to Desdemona before Brabantio (Andrew Akraboff) and the Venetian Senate, he is all swagger and easy smiles, winding his way around the stage and invading others' space like an alpha male comfortably at home in his own territory -- a very unusual choice, as many stagings of this moment emphasize the humility Othello demonstrates in his first monologue of substance: 

Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.

But again, in Bologna's interpretation, if Othello's race no longer makes him an outsider, rendering him a valued general who just happens to be a Moor, then he'd have no reason to abase himself before the officials. Still, Othello's disdain for -- or, perhaps more precisely, lack of interest in -- those around him doesn't make him sympathetic, and his conduct with Iago (Michael Zavala) makes him even less so. The two work out and roughhouse while they talk, and Iago must lose each contest graciously, but Othello abuses his power, stepping on Iago while he does push-ups or turning a wrestling match into a strangling -- all while smiling nonchalantly as ever, while Iago must force his gasps for breath to sound like a good-natured chuckle.

This isn't the first time I've sympathized more with Iago than with Othello. Last spring I wrote that Marin Theatre Company's production of the play should be titled, "Iago, the Bad Guy You Wish Were Good." There, because of the way the director cut the play, it was hard not to notice how much more often Iago is onstage than Othello is. As I wrote in that review, "When [Iago] doesn't get the play's last word, the breakneck, action-packed proceedings almost feel unfinished." Bologna, in one of my favorite of his directorial choices, changed all that. He suggested that although Iago gets his comeuppance, his same old means -- money and manipulation -- will quickly restore him to power.

Bologna's production made me realize that Iago and Othello's battle isn't just a contest of stage time; it's also a contest of introspection, of who is allowed to think, to know himself better. Iago gets the time -- perhaps too much time -- to go so deep into his evil as to become the master of it. And Zavala's performance makes you feel uncomfortable, as if you were the captive audience to a classic over-sharer:

The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he'll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin,
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap'd into my seat; the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife,
Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure. Which thing to do,
If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trash
For his quick hunting, stand the putting on,
I'll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,
Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb--
For I fear Cassio with my night-cap too--
Make the Moor thank me, love me and reward me.
For making him egregiously an ass
And practising upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness. 'Tis here, but yet confused:
Knavery's plain face is never seen tin used.

Othello never gets time alone onstage like this. The one time he almost does, Iago comes back on and interrupts his thoughts after a line or two. After that, Othello isn't alone onstage until he's about to kill Desdemona -- Is it only when he's raised his hands to strangle that he gets a moment to think for himself?

Hunt's performance, however, made me not care about this question. His Othello is so unsympathetic as to lower the stakes of the entire tragedy. I wasn't convinced he could be a smarmy jerk one moment and then truly love the virtuous Desdemona (Juliana Lustenader) the next. With little to believe in, I had little to lose. 

Many of the other performances, however, are more meritorious. Lustenader's Desdemona exudes sweetness, goodness, and, in one particularly felicitous choice, the strength that comes from righteous anger. Zavala has a sinister, gritty purr that makes him a natural villain. He has an ease and a naturalness in the intimate Studio Theatre that made me mostly not mind when he took his time winding his way through his monologues. April Fritz as Cassio, the fellow soldier on whom Iago pins Desdemona's supposed lust, was one of the clearest performers; her commitment and professionalism elucidate her every line, making me wonder if I under-appreciated her Ophelia in SFSU's Hamlet last spring.

The performance I saw was an "invited dress rehearsal," so it's possible that Bologna will have made some changes for tonight's and other performances. A quicker pace might serve him well, as would reconsidering some of his sound cues, many of which over-explain the emotional timbre of moments when the actors are doing just fine on their own. On the whole, though, I'm impressed with the depth he's brought out in his young performers, some of whom are my students!

Othello continues through Sept. 1; info here.

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