Love, Betrayal, Deceit

I was very intrigued when I first heard Othello, written by William Shakespeare and directed by Ted Pappas, was playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Othello is one of those really famous Shakespearean plays (although, to be fair, which one of Shakespeare’s plays isn’t famous?). This one falls in with Macbeth and King Lear and all of the really serious, really awesome Shakespeare plays. If you find yourself attending the play without prior knowledge, I would suggest you Google Othello before you go or you will totally be lost in the first act. Also you may want to read the plot summary before reading this review. Just a suggestion.

Even if you do read the book in its entirety, I’m pretty sure you’ll still find the first act rough. Like, actors tripping on lines rough. When I was sitting through it, I was really worried that this play was going to be torture — and let’s face it, writing a bad review of Shakespeare is basically asking to be called a jerk. I understand that introductions must be made and the scene set, but I think the actors found the first act boring, too. Many of them seemed to be spitting out their lines as fast as they possibly could (hence my suggestion of reading up before the production).

The visual element does not really help at all. Sets at the public theater are always interesting because of the open floor plan and lack of curtain, meaning that part of the set must always remain. Yet this set is extremely sparse and seemingly has no relation to the play. It consisted of a frame made of steel beams set in stone, with the rest of the background made up of gray stained planks. It appears somewhat modern, with kind of a Scandinavian minimalist design. Yet the program and costumes indicated the setting was the mid-19th century. I have no idea why the mid-19th century, because this seemed to serve no purpose either. Having seen the 2010 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Public Theater, my only guess is that Ted Pappas, who directed both productions, really has a thing for setting Shakespearean plays in the 19th century. From an audience’s perspective, it certainly does nothing to detract from the performance, but also nothing to enhance it.

At this point you must be thinking that I absolutely hated this production, but actually walking out of the theater, I have to say that I really enjoyed it. While it may have had its rough spots during the first act, everything comes together after that. Suddenly the characters take on new realness, and we get to really know Iago, perhaps one of the most interesting villains ever written. Jeremy Kushnier did a really excellent job with his role. His changing vocal inflections did a nice job of highlighting the deceit Iago weaves around the other characters. I only wish that Kushnier had highlighted the psychopathic elements of Iago more, to make him a bit scarier and a bit more demented. Overall, however, Kushnier’s performance was engaging.

I have to say, I have a particular soft spot for the role of Emilia. Played by Jessica Wortham, Emilia, Iago’s wife and lady-in-waiting to Desdemona, kicks some serious butt. When she goes on about women essentially being the equal of men you kind of half expect some weird time travel element to be at hand — sorry, Outlander fans, no such thing here. You find yourself thinking to yourself: “Really? Shakespeare wrote that? No!” I mean seriously, I never would have thought anything that progressive could be found in a 17th-century play. But yes, it’s true, and the dramatic irony in about half her lines also makes her character one of the more amusing ones. But ultimately, Emilia stands her ground and fights for justice. So what if Iago knifes her in the back? She already made sure that Iago would get his just desserts. Badass.

Teagle F. Bougere, playing the title role of Othello, was also a show stopper. You could feel the energy he was putting into the performance. Bougere is able to make you see almost every facet of Othello. Sometimes arrogant, sometimes endearing, sometimes mildly psychotic, and seriously misled, Othello is a rich character that you could spend forever analyzing, and Bougere makes you see each part. Matched up with Amanda Leigh Cobb in the role of Desdemona, the two bring such chemistry to these leading roles as to make the final sequence truly heart wrenching. I have never before walked away from a play feeling bad for a character who committed murder, but Othello is not your standard murderer.

Ultimately, like most of Shakespeare’s great works, Othello is exceptionally rich, and the production currently at the Public Theater does not disappoint.