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Recasting Othello In a World of Women

Titan Theatre Company, Queens Theatre, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, May 2, 2015, Second row of studio theater
Directed by Lenny Banovez

Othello, in suede jacket, thick belt, and turquoise pendant, places her hand on the shoulder of Iago, who's wearing a long, black coat. A woman in black jacket and pants and grey blouse stands in the background next to a white curtain
Othello (Leah Dutchin) talks with Iago (Laura Frye) as a messenger (Alex Spieth) looks on in the Titan Theatre Company's all-female production of William Shakespeare's Othello at Queens Theatre. Below, Emily Trask as Desdemona.Photos by Lloyd Mulvey, Titan Theatre Company.

Single-gender productions of William Shakespeare plays are becoming passé. In the past three years I've seen 10, and they generally have as much an ideological purpose as an artistic one. If it's all male, it tends to be in the name of original practice. If it's all female, it is generally for the purpose of allowing women to play the great roles too often denied them by gender-centric directors. Many theater companies practice cross-gender casting, either on principle (such as the American Shakespeare Center, which often casts not only women in men's roles but men in women's roles, even without comic intent) or out of economic necessity, as actresses still outnumber actors in the provinces.

So, an all-female production of Othello might not raise exceptional interest, especially as Titan Theatre Company Artistic Director Lenny Banovez, in his pre-show welcome, cites providing women more acting opportunities as the inspiration for his casting decision. What piques our interest is when Banovez goes on to say that he maintained the character names but changed the pronouns, for instance from "he" to "she." This production does not have women playing men: this Othello is set in a woman's world.

Venice and its Cyprus colony could pass as modern or near-future Amazon societies. Costume Designer Becky Willett has the warriors wearing hip-hugger riding pants, boots, and jackets, and all have long knives tucked into their belts and braids in their hair. Othello wears a suede leather jerkin, wide belt around her waist, sultan pants, and an oval turquoise pendant hanging on a chain. The Venetian Duke and senators are richly dressed in a retro-cocktail-party-in-outer-space look (the Duke wears an open-front skirt over pants), with hair sculpted high in braids. As for the women's roles, Desdemona and Emilia wear floor-length gowns while Bianca wears short-shorts and black stockings—a cross of the warrior and courtesan.

To answer any purists' charge that this smacks of "gimmick Shakespeare," I put this conceptual choice to two tests. One, does it result in an engaging performance? Yes, it does. Two, does it offer new insights into Shakespeare's creation? Acknowledging that such choices inevitably create contrary consequences, which I will broach, I nevertheless also say aye on this point—hesitatingly.

I hesitate because I'm a guy. I try my darnedest to be respectful to women and avoid stereotyping of any sort, but yet, I'm a guy. From personal and professional experience I know that many women can govern, command, and wage war as well as most men. From personal and professional experience I also know that many women can be evil SOBs (or DOBs, actually), foolish toadies, and as gullible as most men. Is it fair or even wise to fall back on personality traits and psyches generally assigned to the feminine side of our species?

Fair or not, before seeing Laura Frye's portrayal in this production, I had never noticed how passive aggressive Iago is. Men present Iago as a schemer fueled by greed or hate or both and, in the way he scams Roderigo, a career con artist. When Frye's Iago says she hates the Moor it carries a more covetousness tone than suppressed rage, and even the way she deals with Roderigo seems more a matter of her nature than part of a grand design (trims in the text further shape this reading). "Put money in your purse" hits her like a light bulb going on, a sudden idea to keep Roderigo in the game—both Roderigo's game angling for Desdemona, and Iago's game keeping Roderigo around as a source of economic security, both still-valid games in this Iago's mind even in the wake of Othello's wedding Desdemona. Sure, this could be an act, but that's the thing about passive aggressive people: it's as much a psychosis as it is a life strategy.

This makes Iago even more dangerous when Desdemona calls on her for counsel and comfort. Frye delivers Iago's words with sincerity as she converses with Desdemona, but insincerity is running beneath even her own conscience in this scene. That undertow represents the real tide in her character. "Demand of me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word," she says to Othello at the end. Indeed, it is her last line in the play, and it adds a period to Frye's passive aggressive portrayal as Iago holds firm to her power of self—"Demand of me nothing"—while still putting all responsibility on Othello—"what you know, you know." Iago herself may not even know what she knows, and for her the better part of discretion is valor.

Whether you agree with this interpretation—and it works for me as an optional reading of Iago (I've written a commentary on my assessment of Iago's grounding as a career soldier being part and parcel of the character's true personality)—Frye's performance in the role is electric. Her verse-reading expertise allows her the fluidity of portraying a woman figuring out her way as she goes along, reacting to changing circumstances while anchored to her own subconscious self-centeredness. She is subtle in expression, confident in bearing; and when Roderigo (Leah Gabriel) hugs her out of a burst of gratitude for Iago's great advice and all-caring disposition, Iago's surprised but pleased reaction inspires an "awwww" moment in the audience. Really? I shake my head now thinking about my own gullibility with that scene—especially having seen the play a dozen times before. Frye is that good. And it just makes us shiver all the more when, immediately after their hug and Roderigo's departure, Iago goes darkly sullen and intones, "I hate the Moor."

Gabriel's take on Roderigo, a pretty face without a clue, generates most of the laughs in this production as her self-absorbed dramatics swing from giddy to my-life-is-over despair. Thus it is that her murder at the hands of Iago ends up being the most shocking death in the production. It is said that your life passes before you at the moment of death, but in Gabriel's "O damned Iago," it is the 20 years of wisdom to come that she suddenly glimpses as her light flickers out.

No other roles are played with any feminine distinction, but some interpretations yet stand out. Emilia, in the performance of Deanna Gibson, equals Gabriel's Roderigo in per capita laughs, but Gibson earns hers through Emilia's worldly wise, nothing-fazes-her attitude. She's grown accustomed to Iago's passive aggressive nature; she's simply learned to adjust and come up with her own strategies for dealing with it. That strategy seems to be saying as little as possible, no matter what she knows or suspects; but Gibson speaks volumes in her silent expressions reacting to the conversations about her with cynical regard or nagging suspicion. Learning that Iago could go so far as to goad Othello to extreme jealousy finally inspires her to speak up at last. However, learning the role the handkerchief played in that plot—fingering her own complicity in the resulting chaos—yanks the ground out from under her. "O heaven! O heavenly powers!" she says in a state of utter helplessness. She's taken back her voice, and on the instant she can hardly speak.

So sharp is Gibson's playing of Emilia, and so nuanced is Frye's portrayal of Iago that Banovez inadvertently deprives us of what would have been a great moment of theater. In the text, as Iago is comforting Desdemona, Emilia begins railing on about "some busy and insinuating rogue, some cogging, cozening slave" similar to "some such squire" who made Iago suspect her with Othello; Iago, meanwhile, tries to shut her up. I was looking forward to seeing Gibson and Frye act out this passage, but it has been cut. Emilia remains ever quiet in the presence of Iago until it's too late.

Emily Trask gives a verse-centric portrayal of Desdemona, offering no other interpretation than that Shakespeare gives her: a woman brought up in high society who falls devotedly in love with a woman (OK, a man in Shakespeare's original intent) who embodies great courage and poetic mildness and who represents a world of adventure yet offers safe stability. Desdemona's upbringing and her devotion to Othello blinds her to the contrary forces that prove fatal to her. Bringing her text to heart-rending life is Trask's triumph as her Desdemona is beyond confused by Othello's sudden change in behavior: she's confounded. The question "What's the matter?" is asked 12 times in the text by various characters, twice by Desdemona. In the first instance she has been awakened by the Cassio-Montano brawl, and she asks the question as a simple inquiry of what got Othello out of bed. But the second instance comes after Othello reveals his intent to kill her and commands her to "Peace, and be still." "I will so," she replies, obediently, but the real tormenting question can't be contained, and her lack of comprehension wells up as she says, "What's the matter?" with anguishing emphasis on the first word, what.

It's a legitimate question, not only regarding the plot but also regarding Leah Dutchin's portrayal of Othello. Though the titular character, this Othello does not provide this production much in the way of ballast. She is more of an enigma than an individual, differing little in her approach to Othello's romantic side and her warrior side before giving way just a little to agony when she understands her fatal misjudgment. This might be a matter of interpretation, a desire to portray the ever-strong woman who keeps her soft side in check. This, however, is neither true to what makes women strong commanders nor is it true to Shakespeare's characterization of the Moor. Othello's capacity to love is just as powerful as his (or her) military bearing: "I think this tale would win my daughter, too," says the Duke after Othello recounts her courtship of Desdemona. Such are many great military leaders, male and female, who are equal in their passions as fierce warriors and doting lovers, though the two personas remain separate (I think this is part of what angers Othello so much about Cassio's brawling, the need to suddenly become the military commander interrupting the throes of a new love's consummation).

Desdemona in a blue patterned dress with a black lace decolletage, folds her arms and tilts her head as she gives a sololiquyBanovez shifts some scenes around—notably opening with the Venetian senate going over war reports before freezing them in place for Shakespeare's opening scene of Iago and Roderigo wakening Brabantio (Carolynne Warren)—and he cuts enough of the text to get the production down to two hours, including a 10-minute intermission. Except for the missed opportunity I mentioned above involving Emilia and Iago and some minor character-shaping excisions, the trims are hardly noticeable (some would argue Desdemona briefly reviving for a second death, which Banovez cuts, is essential; I do not). However, an astute cut of another kind is most noticeable. Having just gotten hold of Desdemona's handkerchief, Iago peruses it. "Trifles light as air are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ: this may do something," he says, and though this is in the middle of a soliloquy, the lights fade out for intermission. It sends a shudder through the theater. When the lights come up for the second half, we see Othello kneeling with her head down, possibly in prayer but certainly in agitation, whereupon Iago enters and resumes her soliloquy where she left off: "The Moor already changes with my poison." Because Iago's psychological manipulation of Othello makes up the middle scenes of the play, directors are always faced with the problem of finding a suitable point to break for the intermission; Banovez's choice is perfect.

The only point where Banovez's conceptual rendering of this play runs into too-rough waters comes as Othello works herself into a frenzy imagining Cassio (Abbey Siegworth) and Desdemona "as hot as monkeys," and Iago reminds him of the handkerchief that Desdemona has allegedly given to Cassio and that Othello sees Cassio give to Bianca (Kate Gunther). Replies Othello: "I would have her nine years a-killing. A fine woman! A fair woman! A sweet woman!" Yes, but which woman? Desdemona or Cassio? Certainly not Bianca. The switch to the all-woman world of this production—and Banovez specifically notes the changing of pronouns (in the above quote, the text has Othello saying "I would have him nine years a-killing," so he clearly means Cassio)—incurs confusion when the various relationships start stacking up. Perhaps this just further portrays Othello's raving at this point, but even I began wondering who was to be poisoned, who was to be strangled in her wedding bed, and who was to be chopped to messes.

That several somebodies were doomed to die brings this production to its most ironic point. Yes, these are strong women, whether they are warriors in pants or spouses in gowns, but don't call this a feminist reading of the play. It is still the Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice. Women can make mayhem as well as men can.

Eric Minton
May 8, 2015

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