From Cal Shakes, an Updated ‘Othello’

New artistic director Eric Ting debuts with some Bard for the twenty-first century, with mixed results.

Aiming to provoke response as much as present a classic piece of theater, actor Lance Gardner introduced California Shakespeare Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s Othello with jokes. Visibly sweating, squinting into the sun during a 94-degree September matinee, he noted the number of African-American men in the cast. “What this means is Black-skin males, working outside all summer in the blazing heat — that’s not a new idea in America.”

For his reconfigured Othello, new artistic director Eric Ting employs that type of uneasy comedy as a point of entry throughout the two-hour-forty-minute show — with mixed results.

Traditionally, the play tells the outsider story of Othello, a Black Moor and general in the Venetian army who ultimately kills his wife, Desdemona, a white woman and the daughter of as Venetian senator. Ting’s version does that, and more. Throughout, actors break away from the play to tell jokes, discuss directorial choices, describe human strangulation from a physiological perspective and, in the production’s final moments, demand audience feedback. While some of the intrusions effectively integrate 21st century hot-button topics — such as racism, Islamophobia, domestic abuse, unconscious bias, police gun violence, and the 2016 Presidential election — into the over four hundred-year-old play, others undermine the work’s organic impact.

Do we need to hear a recording of Trump speaking about ISIS and immigration to recognize the parallels between a society struggling with change in the 1600’s and our own? Do the actors, tasked with bouncing in and out of character, manage as deep a dive into their roles? Can a play become too topical and relevant?

Ting’s cleverness is appealing and often downright funny, so it’s hard to resist falling in love with the innovations. Based on the imposed “talk back” at a show during the opening weekend, audience response was fifty-fifty. Some members objected to the modern take on a work they hold sacred, but an equal number of people applauded Ting’s daringness because it helped them understand Shakespeare “for the first time.” For this reviewer, the interaction was jarring and eclipsed the power of the play’s final scene.

The actors’ straightforward delivery is easy to comprehend, but it sacrifices the play’s intrigue at times. A critical scene in which Othello overhears two characters discussing a woman he mistakenly believes is his wife, for instance, loses its sizzle when the actor playing Othello spins in his seat to share his thoughts with the audience through ‘asides.’ The interruption was distracting, not enlightening.

But at other moments, such as during Gardner’s opening stand-up comedy routine (he later plays Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant) the “interruptions” added momentum. Gardner was deliberately aggressive as he breezily ruffled even the most shellacked contemporary feathers by using the “n” word in a stream of one-line, race-centric jokes that occasionally skewered the audience for being mostly white. It was the perfect setup for a production that is as much about racial and gender profiling as it is about love.

Overall, the acting was powerful. James Carpenter instantly established the tone of the production in his role as villainous ensign Iago, blowing like a chill wind or creeping like undetected cancer. Liz Sklar grabbed the role of Desdemona, a feisty female caught in a patriarchal prison, with assuredness and agility. Aldo Billingslea — seen earlier in Cal Shakes’ season as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences — confidently carved Othello’s path from dignified to dangerous. Cal Shakes actors frequently carry several roles in one production. Here, casting director Clea Shapiro did an insightful job.

Nina Ball’s set was deceptively minimalist while carrying sophisticated implications: strip marks on the stage floor designated and cut through the space that became a “boxing ring” for interaction, complete with a red bell mounted on a bare brown wall. Ting and sound and projection designer Brendan Aanes used its ringing to comic and tragic effect, breaking up fight scenes or signaling death.

Costumes by Alexae Visel could have been borrowed from the audience: jeans, T-shirts, SF Giants baseball cap, work boots. The production’s casual environment invited intimacy and rapport; we feel as if we are buddies of the director and have been invited to sit in on a rehearsal.

Adore, admire, or hate this Othello, conversations I overhead while leaving the theatre signaled a certain kind of success. Without fail, the talk was about how the play caused people to turn inward, to define themselves against its backdrop. If art is meant to provoke, Ting’s Othello accomplishes its purpose.

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