Shakespeare is often touted for the universality of his stories—the way the themes resonate down the ages even when the historic settings are long past. But the flip side of that is the ability to distance ourselves from those themes, not only because they are framed as entertainment, but because their historic grounding provides an easy out. “Yes, Romeo and Juliet is a universal story, but after all we no longer live in a society that marries off pre-teen girls or where private feuds spill over into public body-counts. (Except when we do; except where they do.)
Othello has a lot of fodder for relevance today, with its themes of racism, jealousy, and domestic violence. In its fourth and final show of the 2016 season, Cal Shakes takes a brutal approach to connecting that relevance to our own lives and times. The show is meant to be disturbing and painful—almost the opposite of “entertainment”—and that intent is framed by a number of unusual features of the performance meant to prepare and manage the audience reception. The connections are strongly drawn to contemporary racially motivated hatred, casual micro-aggressions, the burning anger of disappointed entitlement, the use of Islam as a looming faceless Other, and the explosive intersection of the power dynamics of misogyny and racism.
And the bedrock of how the play is staged relies on confronting the inescapable fact that the Cal Shakes audience skews very white and very affluent. The performance begins with a “pre-show” monologue by actor Lance Gardner (Cassio) filled with racial/ethnic/religious “jokes” drawn from the headlines that can neither be laughed at nor applauded nor met in silence when delivered from a black performer to a predominantly white audience. The purpose is to shake us up, to make us squirm, to warn us that this will be an uncomfortable show and that it’s ok to acknowledge that discomfort. It’s meant to signal us to listen to Shakespeare’s words with the same unease we would have if we heard them from the guy at the next table in Starbucks. (Oops, instead let’s go with Cal Shakes sponsors Peets Coffee & Tea.) When Iago taunts Desdemona’s father that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” we should hear the voices of right-wing hate radio. When Othello asks his fractious subordinates, “Are we turned Turks?” we should see how quickly and reflexively violent acts are ascribed to Muslims. As those four hundred year old lines roll resonantly off the stage, we’re meant to feel them as raw and in-our-face, not as the work of an Old Dead White Guy whose legacy can be shaken off as only “the context of his times.”
The staging was starkly bare: a ring of chairs, a table with a handful of props, a pair of microphones at the side for extra-textual asides (as when Desdemona’s strangulation is accompanied by a medical recitation of the physiological process), a projection screen used to label the setting change (and to project real-time close-ups of specific actors at key points). The only significant piece of scenery is the bed where Desdemona’s murder takes place. The costuming, too, pins us to current events, most overtly with Othello’s black hoodie.
The Cal Shakes casting choices are frequently race-neutral (at least when casting traditionally white roles) but although three prominent roles are filled by black actors, the choice is far from neutral. Othello, of course, is played by Aldo Billingslea (a Cal Shakes regular, most recently seen as main character Troy Maxson in Fences). But also his right-hand man Cassio (Lance Gardner, who has featured in all four shows this season), and the Duke of Venice (Elizabeth Carter, who also plays Bianca and some unnamed roles in this production). This adds an extra layer to Iago’s (James Carpenter) racialized sense of injured entitlement. Not only has Othello been elevated as general over him by a black duke, but Othello has (presumably in Iago’s mind) preferred Cassio over Iago, driven by racial solidarity. This adds another unspoken motivation for using Cassio as the weapon to strike at Othello’s equilibrium while shifting the implications of Desdemona’s fictitious transfer of affections.
The racial dynamics of Othello transfer fairly well across the centuries, but the role of toxic patriarchy in driving the tragedy was the water Shakespeare was swimming in. Desdemona (Liz Sklar) connects that part of the circle in one of the few costume-related actions. After the scene where Othello has struck her, as the next scene continues in her absence, we see a real-time projection of Sklar, backstage, applying make-up for a black eye in reverse-echo of endless women covering up the marks of their abuse.
At the climax of the play—just before Othello’s suicide—the cast breaks to address the audience, with Desdemona rising from the dead to take the lead, and leads a discussion of reactions and analysis. (I can’t really call it “breaking the fourth wall” because Cal Shakes kind of burned down the fourth wall a very long time ago.) It’s a moment that could feel unintentionally humorous but was all of a piece with the interactive nature of the performance. What did this work mean to you? How did it make you feel? What connections have you made? It was in this context that the themes of misogyny and domestic violence were addressed as they couldn’t be within the framework of Shakespeare’s script alone. And yet it was this discussion that made me realize the limitations of drawing the story into today’s headlines. We cannot escape the priorities and anxieties we bring to our experience. Othello’s story is that of a man deliberately destroyed, both in body and self-hood, because of racialized envy and hatred. But Desdemona’s story is that of a woman destroyed as a casual, objectified consequence by patriarchal structures and a system that presumes men’s ownership of women’s bodies and lives. To identify with her is to see Othello as a villain—not for his race, but for his masculinity, the very masculinity that he is fighting so hard to maintain. While to identify with him is to see Desdemona as a thing, a tool, a stage prop, someone who had no agency to affect her own fate and whose tragedy is not her own but part of Othello’s. In the conflict between these two narratives I couldn’t help seeing a reflection—though I don’t believe the performance itself specifically evoked this—of OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown and the impossible tangle inherent in that particular overlay of social power dynamics.
In summary: a powerful, disturbing staging of Othello that succeeded in assaulting the concept of the audience as passive consumers of entertainment and went far beyond the usual goal of making Shakespeare “relevant.”