“Othello” Goes Back to Basics
by Asher Alt
DES MOINES, Iowa – Producing a Shakespeare play, and making it appear fresh and subversive, is no easy feat. With “Othello,” Iowa Western Community College overcomes this daunting challenge.
The play, adapted by director Shea Saladee, revolves around a devious plan created by Iago, a soldier serving under Othello in the Venetian army. Iago, resentful of Othello’s power and driven by his jealousy of Cassio’s promotion, convinces Othello that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful. As with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the characters’ vices lead to several of their deaths.
Saladee and set designer Brent Froning, in collaboration with the rest of the artistic team, presented a minimalistic set upon which the story could be told. Actors stood on white boxes at varying heights, and were dressed in edgy, modern black clothes with a few pops of color. Men sported colorful handkerchiefs in their breast pocket, and the women’s dresses were accented with blue, purple and pink. White lights illuminated each actor from above, creating dark shadows around the actors’ facial features. This added to the air of secrecy and darkness that is so central to the play.
The movement was heavily stylized throughout the production. As the audience filed into the theater before the play began, the actors came on stage in intervals to pose in different, powerful ways. These poses continue throughout the play when characters are not speaking. When they are, they face the audience, rarely looking at the other actors. This artistic choice puts a heavy emphasis on Shakespeare’s words, which, while appropriate for a production at a theater festival, would probably not be very accessible to just any theatergoer.
The actors are like a Greek chorus, saying lines in unison, and moving in sync with one another. Othello reaches his hand out in the air, and Desdemona caresses her face as if her husband’s hand was actually there. They repeat words in the script that relate to the seven deadly sins: lust, jealousy, devil. These words are echoed from Saladee’s added prologue, which warns against sin and asks the audience members to ponder the sins they have committed.
As the actors face the audience for the entirety of the play, there is no physical connection and little visual connection shared between characters, and this proves to be the cause of a larger problem.
Due to the lack of connection, some of the supporting actors seemed to have trouble reacting off of one another. At times, their portrayals of characters and their acting choices seemed forced, or not truthful. Other times, it sounded as if they were just reciting Shakespeare’s words, rather than owning and understanding them. This would make it hard for an audience member to follow the plot if he was not familiar with the play.
However, one performance truly stood out as believable, truthful and engaging. Jackson Newman, who played Iago, had a masterful command of the Bard’s language. He made it easy for the audience to understand and clearly communicated his character’s goals and villainous intentions. The other two leads, Qhayisa Mafilika (Othello) and Mati Phelps (Desdemona), also gave commendable performances. It was unfortunate that the performances of the rest of the cast seemed to overshadow the leads’ brightness.
Iowa Western’s production of “Othello” took an innovative yet minimalistic approach to one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, allowing for an emphasis on the playwright’s words rather than on flashy design elements. Yet, the play was brought to life through the actors’ heightened movements and synchronicity. While perhaps not a show for everyone, it would be a spectacle worth seeing for those who appreciate Shakespeare’s legacy.
Othello: Qhayisa Mafilika; Iago: Jackson Newman; Cassio: Dylan Scott Warrick; Roderigo: Franciso Franco; Desdemona: Mati Phelps; Emelia: Kendra Newby; Bianca: Jamie Herzberg
Director: Shae Saladee; Assistant Director: Shanlie Phillips; Technical Director: Alex Throop; Producer: Lora Kaup; Lighting Designer: Shae Saladee, Rick Goble; Set Designer: Brent Froning; Sound Designer: Shae Saladee; Production Manager: Jackson Zimmerman; Costume Designer: Lora Kaup; Assistant Costume Designer: Kendra Newby; Master Electrician: Alex Throop; Light Board Operator: Courtney Sidzyik; Sound Board Operator: Alex Throop