William Shakespeare just might be churning and spitting in his grave in response to yet another liberal interpretation of Othello. The tone is set early when Iago drunk dials Lady Desdemona's father on her cell phone. I was apprehensive about what might follow, hoping this production would not strike the same pose as Baz Luhrmann's outright corny suburban interpretation of Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Executive director and founder of the African-American Shakespeare Company, Sherri Young, tinkers with sexuality, gender, race and a hint of war and technology in Othello. Shakespeare's immense vocabulary is left untouched so viewers at least know they are in the right building.
Iago is distraught when Othello overlooks her and chooses Cassio to be his second in command. Self-pity sparks revenge; Iago informs Venetian Senator Brabantio that his daughter Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Othello is an African Moor, which makes him an unfit match in Brebantio's estimation, and so begins the drama. Yet, all this talk of Venetians comingling with Moors leaves one a little confused as to why the scene is set in Iraq.
Young consolidates Shakespeare's cast to five actors, removing some characters and combining others. Desdemona's father Brabantio is mentioned but never seen or heard in Young's production. Roderigo is a Venetian man who has feelings for Desdemona and assists Iago in Othello's demise. Young morphs Roderigo and Iago into one irate lesbian played by Aimee McCrary. The gender switch is an intriguing twist that complicates Iago's plot to destroy Othello's marriage. It seems no coincidence that McCrary is an African American actress playing the role of a racist who belittles Othello for his African roots (behind his back of course). One cannot be sure whether it was Young's intention to extend intrigue to irony.
Iago warns us from the beginning, "I am not what I am." Hopefully McCrary is not as dry in real life, delivering her lines like a stand-in at the start of the play. As the action gets going, McCrary redeems herself. Iago's delight in her own malice is made clear through the actor's facial expressions, which enrich the meaning behind the character's mischief while adding much-needed comic relief.
The least significant female role is by far the best played by Meggi Hai Trang as Emilia, Desdemona's attendant. Jeff Handy's Othello is no match for Trang's absorbing and natural delivery. It is unclear if Desdemona is absolutely annoying or if it's Vivian Kane's portrayal of the aristocratic lady. Sam Leichter as Cassio has spunk where it counts.
The set design by Joel Eis allows three worlds to merge on stage at the African American Arts & Culture Complex. On the left is a bar with a few stools where Iago pours alcohol down Cassio's throat and begins to plant her seeds of deceit. The stage is a smidge too far for my outdated contacts to decipher what those framed pictures are about on the fake stone wall behind the bar. Taking center stage is a rigid-looking brown leather office chair where Othello sits from time to time while Desdemona tends to his headaches. Props to the right set the military tone. Nothing says Iraq like a wall covered in macramé of various green tones, representing lush vegetation beyond. Stretched before the green wall is a line of sandbags piled four high. Before the sandbags sit a small wooden crate and a red cooler on which Iago sits early in the play to plot, plot, plot!
The cast seemed to engage the audience directly in such an intimate setting, often making eye contact, which felt like a challenge. But whenever the challenge was met, it distracted from the play.
Tragedy tends to be a fascinating subject but the evening was a bit too much of a mess to be enjoyable. Changing the location from Venice to Iraq detracted from a desired cohesion. Something close to gripping was achieved by morphing the characters, though ultimately few of the added devices integrated well with Shakespeare's intentions.
After the better part of two hours, the final bows and dimming of the lights are met with a joking chant for an encore from an elderly gentleman to my left, "We want Macbeth! We want Macbeth!"
The African-American Shakespeare Company's production of Othello runs through April 18, 2010 at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit african-americanshakes.org.