Starkly Unconventional: IWCC’s “Othello”
By Abigail J. Stoscher
Harsh light struck seven white blocks of differing heights, cutting dark shadows into the white stage floor. An actor in black stood on each white block, frozen in a dynamic pose. Iowa Western’s unconventional production of Shakespeare’s “Othello” was a stark, presentational depiction of the devastation wreaked by jealousy and lies.
With a technique reminiscent of Michael Chekov’s psychological gestures, the actors’ opening tableaus immediately set up not only the conventions of the show, but also the seven characters’ personalities, clearly portraying each as devious, furious, sensual, or helpless.
Director Shea Saladee’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s haunting script carves the story down to a single plotline. Iago (Jackson Newman), bitter that his general Othello (Qhayisa Mafilika) has promoted Cassio (Dylan Warrick) instead of him, exacts revenge on his general by corrupting what Othello holds most dear: his loving relationship with his wife Desdemona (Mati Phelps). Through a series of lies, Iago manipulates Othello into suspecting an affair between Cassio and Desdemona, which eventually leads the jealous Othello to strangle his wife.
Saladee’s adaptation also contained an added prologue made up of lines and phrases from the play that connected each character to one of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Christian Catholic Church, beginning and ending with the phrase, “Forgive us our sins.”
“Shakespeare gives us a piece of work that is thematically timeless,” Saladee wrote in her director’s note. “I decided to look back to the start of western theatre and explore practices that those before us gave.”
Although the actors were in stylized modern dress, the production relied upon an eclectic and presentation style that pre-dated Shakespeare by centuries. The most noticeable such element was that the actors fulfilled the role of the Greek chorus by remaining onstage (in tableau) even when not directly acting in the scene.
The actors often broke out of these tableaus to echo dialogue lines directly to the audience before snapping back into position. For instance, when Iago tried to convince Othello that he was spreading these rumors about Desdemona out of “honest kindness,” the chorus turned to the audience and said, “Honest!” Though slightly overused, this convention had a chilling effect and added to the story’s urgency.
Each actor remained on their white block the entire show. When characters needed to interact physically with each other, they did so only in off-stage focus; Othello reached his hands towards the audience to choke his wife, and Desdemona, also staring out at the audience, put her hands around her own neck as if trying to pull him away. Far from weakening the intense physical tension in the scene, however, this outward focus deepened it; the audience could simultaneously witness the determined fury on Othello’s face and Desdemona’s helplessness, while almost feeling as if they themselves were being strangled.
The most fascinating aspect of this convention was the way it translated to the use of the sole prop: a handkerchief. There was only one handkerchief in the story, but each actor had their own handkerchief that matched the color of their costume. With sleight of hand, the actors, while both facing the audience, looked as if they were snatching the handkerchief from one-another.
Every so often, however, the characters would switch to onstage focus for a few lines. Although this convention created several beautifully intimate moments, the fact that the audience never knew when to expect these flashes of onstage focus often made the transitions jarring.
Another aspect that further emphasized Saladee’s concept of timelessness and helped to focus attention on the action of the story was the simplicity of the design elements.
The starkness of Brent Froning’s set design, for instance, evoked ancient playing spaces and cut the story down to its essentials by creating a space in which the actor was prevalent. Besides the intriguing aesthetic that the different levels of blocks provided, the levels also fulfilled the practical task of making it possible for each actor to be completely seen—a crucial element in such a movement-based show.
Lora Kaup’s costumes were simple and modern: the men dressed in cut-up uniforms, and the women in dance-like clothing. The half-bare bellies of the three men distracted audience members more than the designer could have wanted, but the crisp, uneven lines of the cut uniforms in contrast with the women’s fluid skirts certainly fit within the harsh and complex world of the play.
Each of the black outfits were helpfully decorated with a touch of color unique to that character. Iago, for instance, a man tormented by envy, wore a costume tinged with green, and Othello, passionate and wrathful, one with red.
The makeup design was subtle, yet intriguing. Othello’s eyes were lined with pale color on either side, setting him apart and made his eyes stand out from his dark face, giving him an honest, noble look. Iago’s green eyeshadow again reflected his deceitful, envious personality.
Since the set was white, Saladee’s and Rick Goble’s lighting design also avoided color, relying instead on the use of varying intensities. Between scenes, the usual sharp white light softened to reflect the actors’ movement as they slid from one pose into another. The lighting also helped to isolate the characters engaged in the scene from the posing chorus members.
Like all the other design elements, sound was minimal. A foreboding music underscored the play: melancholy strings with a pulsing drumbeat that increased the ever-mounting tension. The music certainly fit the tone of the show, but at times seemed to overpower the action.
Simplifying these design elements forced the audience to focus on the acting; however, the rather listless portrayal of some of the minor characters caused the energy of the piece to drop. Still, the ensemble as a whole was strong. Their timing with the asides to the audience was impeccable, and each actor’s tableaus were active and intriguing.
Jackson Newman stole the show as Iago. Even though this adaptation practically skipped his motivation for wanting revenge on Othello, Newman still played the role dynamically and deviously. His cleverness in making Othello drag the lies out of him enlisted the audience’s admiration, despite his horrifying aim. His desperation at the end when his wife Emelia (Kendra Newby) is about to reveal his whole plot was sickeningly pitiful. Newman also seemed the most comfortable with the Shakespearean verse.
Qhayisa Mafilika as Othello also entreated the audience’s empathy by his simple, honest love for Desdemona, and his initial horror at the thought that she might be cheating on him. Even after he had committed his heinous crime, the audience could not help but hurt with him as he wept over his wife’s cold body.
Mati Phelps’ Desdemona was certainly, as Emelia describes her, “heavenly true.” Phelps’ depiction of Desdemona’s pain and confusion when Othello accused her of being a whore instantly drew the audience to her side. Her helpless cry to Othello, “What sin have I committed?” encapsulated Desdemona’s heartbroken character.
Iowa Western’s adaptation of “Othello” was portrayed clearly and honestly, with a stark physicality that augmented the story’s intensity and a nakedness of design that stripped it down to its raw truth: a warning that jealousy and lies can only bring destruction.
“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy”
by Derek R. Munson
Des Moines, IA—Adapting Shakespeare is tricky business. In the wrong hands, adapting Shakespeare’s “Othello” is even trickier. In a new adaptation by director Shea Saladee, the tragedy of the Moor of Venice and his doomed bride, Desdemona, are reimagined with varying degrees of success. This is a high concept “Othello” that strives to bring the green-eyed monster, Iago, front and center—literally. He stands on a box, center stage, for most of the play. Running at a merciful 75 minutes with a cast of seven young actors, this production ultimately collapses under the weight of its own concept and archaic dramaturgy.
Shakespeare’s problematic play is an exploration of greed, jealousy, and envy. It is a familiar game of cat and mouse with no clear winners. Ignoring most of the exposition of the original text and cutting all but the main characters, Saladee instead focuses on Iago and his abhorrent treatment of women. In Othello’s world, a wife is a thing, a strumpet to be used and then eaten.
Through fragmentary dialogue and stilted movement, the director weaves together a tapestry of the devil incarnate. Iago will destroy Othello at any costs, with the women paying the highest price. Iago’s wife Emilia kills herself, and Desdemona is murdered in a fit of violent rage, all because of a man’s greed and envy. Iago orchestrates the entire thing for sport.
The play begins with the actors standing in tableau on large white boxes of varying sizes. They speak and breath in unison, staring forward, never looking at each other. The tableaus frequently change, suggesting frozen moments in time. This is a highly-stylized pantomime, sustained throughout the play. The impression is like watching 7 life-size music boxes, each with a bizarre looking marionet on top, moving and contorting without ever truly coming to life. At first, the effect is haunting. Later in the play it becomes a trap, a monotonous devise that sinks the production without ever being fully explored.
The deconstructed costumes are designed by Lara Kaup and suggest a world of dark science fiction. A strong lighting design by Saladee and Rick Goble add a sense of foreboding to the already heightened abstraction. Ominous music underscores the action, humming and droning with almost no variation in pitch and tempo. All this sameness is, at times, fascinating but ultimately creates the effect of listening to one long sustained musical note.
Saladee assimilates into the dialogue the 7 deadly sins: gluttony, sloth, greed, lust, pride, envy, and wrath. These sins are a touch stone for the characters throughout the play, but because the characters never look at each other or connect emotionally, the text falls flat. To the actors’ credit, all are earnest in their line delivery and do their best to sustain energy and focus throughout the play. Their dedication to the material is unwavering and their commitment to the concept is admirable.
Intentional or not, Saladee’s adaptation is a beacon of caution to women. From Iago stating that his wife is “a good witch” to Othello questioning Desdemona’s unwavering chastity and repeatedly calling her a “whore,” Shakespeare makes it clear that women are nothing more than property.
At what point does dramatic literature like “Othello” cease to be part of the canon of great works? When will misogyny as entertainment and the “evil that men do” finally get tossed aside in favor of greater works that heal wounds, rather than re-open them? Perhaps it is time to revisit Shakespeare’s canon with an eye toward critical relevance and social responsibility.
“Othello” by William Shakespeare is presented by Iowa Western Community College for the KCACTF Region V competition and plays at the Kum & Go Theatre, 22 SW 9th Street, Des Moines, IA. on January 25th at 10:00 AM, 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM. Tickets may be reserved through Eventbrite on KCACTF.org. Kum & Go Theatre: 515-265-2535.
Directed by Shea Saladee; Assistant Director Shanlie Phillips; Technical Director, Alex Throop, Producer, Lara Kaup; Lighting Designer, Shea Saladee/Rick Gable; Set Designer, Brent Froning; Sound Designer, Shea Saladee; Production Manager, Jackson Ximmerman; Costume Designer, Lara Kaup; Assistant Costume Designer, Kendra Newby; Master Electrician, Alex Thorop; Light Board Operator, Courtney Sidzyik; Sound Board Operator, Alex Throop.
Cast: Othello, Qhayisa Mafilika; Iago, Jackson Newman; Cassio, Daylan Scott Warrick; Roderigo, Francisco Franco; Desdemona, Mati Phelps; Emelia, Kendra Newby; Bianca, Jamie Herzberg.