Pity poor Iago. He’s attractive, charming, clever, and experienced in battle, yet he’s passed over for a promotion in favor of a soldier better known for book learning than bloodshed. His boss, Othello, seems to have forgotten that Iago has seniority. It’s also possible that Othello has had an affair with Iago’s wife, Emilia. There have been some rumors, repugnant to Iago, that Othello has “done his business” twixt Iago’s sheets, and according to some Freudians Iago secretly longs for either Othello or the black general’s beautiful wife Desdemona. That’s a lot of pressure for one man to withstand, particularly if he has a deep destructive streak. To the everlasting horror of playgoers, Iago doesn’t bother to resist, leading to the tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, a play Shakespeare could have just as easily named Iago.
Woman’s Will’s production, which plays in Berkeley for one night only, opens with a largely dialogue-free addition that serves to give context to Iago’s hatred of Othello. A regiment marches onstage, led by Michael Cassio, and Othello ceremoniously promotes him to lieutenant, passing over the more battle-worthy Iago. The decision makes Iago’s hatred more understandable, yet reduces some of the occult quality of Shakespeare’s seductive villain. When the play begins as written, we have no idea of why Iago hates Othello so much, and the different reasons he throws out are as confusing as Othello’s return from madness is heartrending in its simplicity.
Although he’s vicious, predatory, and probably psychopathic, Iago is usually played as an attractive character, the better to contrast with his inner ugliness. So who better to play him from the all-female Woman’s Will stable than the adorable, chipmunk-cheeked Lizzie Calogero? She often gets cast playing young, volatile and/or flighty characters; here she gets to sink her teeth into a psychopath with deadly intent and shows her mettle as Iago tears a great gaping wound in Venetian society.
Where Iago’s motivations are crystal-clear from the beginning, his patsy, the gentleman Roderigo, is a little harder to figure out. It’s not immediately clear from Carrie Paff’s initially twitchy performance that Roderigo is in love with Othello’s wife Desdemona; it seems more that he’s the sort of dumb thug that Iago can play like a flute. As a weapon in Iago’s hands, Roderigo picks fights, mostly with Cassio; eventually he dies for just that reason. It would be nice to see the pointlessness of his sacrifice made more explicit.
The character of Roderigo has in common with almost all of the characters a certain dirtiness, manifest in almost everyone. Michael Cassio, for example, played by the taciturn Carla Pantoja, appears to be possessed of great bearing and dignity — until he gets a few drinks in him, or a woman beside him. Cassio’s alcoholism is one of the great minor themes of this play, and watching Iago manipulate it is fascinating; Pantoja plays Cassio’s reluctance to partake with Iago very well and the resulting brawl flawlessly. Likewise, Emilia (Danielle Levin) is morally questionable; she knows that her husband Iago isn’t entirely on the up-and-up when he demands that she hand over Desdemona’s handkerchief, but she goes along, probably because she’s afraid of the anger he is openly manifesting by that point in the story. Desdemona’s father is a blusterer, the sort of man happy to see a black general defending the city’s gates but not opening his daughter’s.
The notable exceptions to this dirtiness are Othello and Desdemona. Yes, yes, he goes crazy and kills her, but he is motivated at all times by a sense of justice, as twisted as it may be. J. Tiffany Holland plays Othello’s slide impeccably, beginning with the utmost dignity and ending with heartrending, destructive confusion. Desdemona (Maria Grazia Affinito) meanwhile is spunky and bright but, like her husband, too naive by far. For some reason in this production, the only anachronistic costumes are on Desdemona’s body, perhaps to point up that she is made of gentler stuff; it’s an odd choice and a little distracting. The chemistry between the two is quite hot, and points up the general brilliance of Woman’s Will casting: the chemistry has to be entirely believable, perhaps more so than it would be between men and women playing male and female roles, because if it isn’t, the whole illusion of women playing trouser roles would falter.
Othello is different from Shakespeare’s other plays in many ways, some of which should make it especially relevant to modern audiences, even if the central structure (a woman loses her handkerchief, so her husband goes insane and kills her) seems implausible today. For one thing, Othello isn’t a king, duke, or even a witch, but a more recognizable career soldier. Iago, meanwhile, reflects too well the side of us that longs for revenge against those who have wronged us. It’s also a very tight play, virtually free of the subplots that make some of Shakespeare’s works impenetrable in less gifted hands. While it’s rich in themes, there are relatively few characters, and their side stories are not told.
The end result is a growing claustrophobia as Othello draws closer to a killing rage and Desdemona to her death; a tension so great that audience members through the ages have often responded in surprising ways. In the 17th century, audience members sometimes rushed the stage hoping to prevent Desdemona’s murder. The wife of a Cherokee chief, sitting through a 1752 production, became so distressed that she sent two of her braves on stage to separate the combatants during the brawl between Cassio and Roderigo. Most dramatically, during one production in the days of the old West, an audience member got up and shot dead the actor playing Iago.
The Woman’s Will Othello shows that this play is also powerful, whether it’s performed in period costume or modern dress (as it is here), because it speaks to ages-old questions of racism and hatred. Although some productions, notably British ones, have recast Othello as an Arab or even a white man, allegedly to keep the story focused on the motif of overweening sexual jealousy, one of its great strengths lies in its examination of the plight of a black man who will never be completely assimilated within the society for which he is prepared to lay down his life. Othello’s superiors trust him implicitly, yet he is still privy to jabs and prods to which he is expected to remain immune. Holland captures this particularly nicely at one point when someone calls Othello a “sooty thing”; she looks down, quickly, and we see that Othello often has to just suck it up and try to stay above the snide comments, the mumbling commentary, the virtually inaudible soundtrack that mocks his efforts, his achievements, and the true love he has for Desdemona.