I've never felt as strongly about a production of "Othello" as I do about the new one at Fresno State. And that's a high compliment if you believe that theater should push, provoke and perhaps even paddle an audience now and then. Thanks to Brad Myers' assertive and full-throttle direction, this production — with its incendiary swagger and raw, contemporary sensibility — reaches out and grabs you by the throat.
Does this mean I enjoyed the experience of this "Othello"? I can't go that far. To be blunt, I was pretty uncomfortable by the end. Never before have I been so disturbed by the play's racial politics.
And does this mean I think more highly of "Othello" as a play after seeing this production? No. Confession: I've always been troubled by it. George Bernard Shaw famously said that " 'Othello' is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera," and while I love opera, I've never been able to warm much to what I perceive as the play's inflated, emotionally bombastic characters. (Sacrilege, I know.)
Yes, we all know that in Shakespeare's heightened world, the green-eyed monster of jealousy can transform otherwise solid individuals into quivering blobs of irrationality. But when Othello (played at alternate performances by Ryan Woods and Myles Bullock) swallows the "your wife is cheating on you" line espoused by his devious lieutenant, the malevolent Iago, without a hint of skepticism, I find it all, well — a little boring. (I know! Sacrilege!) There's no tension for me watching the easily reeled-in Othello, no texture to his downfall. And, while we're on the matter of Iago (Brandon Petrie) — just why does he hate Othello so much?
Myers sets the play in contemporary times and gives it a U.S. militaristic sheen. This contemporary edge both works for and against the play. It certainly strips "Othello" of any sense of it being a museum piece. The brisk acting and staging connect on a visceral level. Race is the big factor in the play, and while there are varying interpretations of just what Shakespeare meant when he used the word "Moor" to describe Othello — black African? Arab? — it's clear that the color of his skin is important. That's what drives reaction to news early on in the play that Desdemona (Kia Vassiliades) has secretly married Othello, much to the consternation of her father, Branbantio (Christopher Volkerts).
When you set the play in the present day and give it a modern sheen — and accomplish that task as effectively as Myers does here — I think it can create a dissonance that is hard to surmount. The production strips away the buffer that a museum-like "classical" staging can provide between you and the hate, and instead exposes it, like a dug-up third rail.
I saw Woods play the title role on opening night, and he gives a vigorous and affecting performance. He, along with a compelling Vassiliades as Desdemona, offer a rivetingly horrific last scene together. Dillon Morgan has some nice moments in his foppish interpretation of Roderigo, whose whiny love for Desdemona complicates the plot. Lauryn Moles offers a steely Emilia, who stands by her mistress. Austin Whitford finds a sweet amiability in his Michael Cassio, the pawn in the game between Othello and Iago.
The acting is very strong overall, and I sense that each performer has a sturdy relationship with the text.
That said, I was most taken with Petrie's Iago. Though the motivations and overall arc of the character might drive me a little crazy, I found Petrie's interpretation a perfect balance between chilling and desultory.
Petrie, a Fresno State alum, seems more than any of the others to belong in the particular world of this production. The performance is somehow both mesmerizing and low-key, a real triumph. I can't say the same for the production overall.
But this ambitious and well-done "Othello," even as it scraped my sensibilities, provoked me. That's an accomplishment.
"Othello," 8 p.m. today and Saturday, John Wright Theatre, Fresno State. www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/ theatrearts, (559) 278-2216. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, email@example.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.