British director Jonathan Munby finds the humor amidst the racism and uxoricide in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Shakespeare 400 Chicago” production of Othello.
For a play that starts with the curses “Tush!” and “’Sblood,” that contains multifarious mentions of monsters, green-eyed and otherwise, and for a production that churns throughout a constant haze, one must assume that tragedy is afoot; however, comedy is peppered throughout this modern, Operation Enduring Freedom, Cypriot version, of the Bard’s interpretation of early modern race relations.
Statuesque James Vincent Meredith and his gorgeously modulated voice assume the mantle of the Moor, a successful general who opens the play on his knees in a Catholic marriage to privileged, plucky Desdemona (Bethany Jillard).
Poppa Brabantio (David Lively) is none too pleased that this old black ram is tupping his white ewe, so he storms out of his gray apartment block, which fills the backstage wall (designed by Alexander Dodge), with his entourage to complain to the Duke.
The Duke here is Madam Secretary of State, Melissa Carlson in a smart burgundy suit (designed by Linda Cho). From the situation room, she insists she needs Othello and his special ops to get to Cyprus to deal with the Turks.
Desi accompanies her man and his mignons to the war-torn island, and shows she’s the “great captain’s captain” by bringing along a suite of designer luggage and wearing impractical wedge shoes.
Meantime, Iago (Michael Milligan) is in full Operation Hate the Moor mode, employing sap Roderigo (Fred Geyer), and his unrequited love for Desi, to bring down the General for passing him over in favor of a bromance with Michael Cassio (hunky-when-shirtless and even-when-not Luigi Sottile), using his “poor and unhappy brains for drinking” against him.
Iago is out to “pour pestilence in his ear,” and weaves an elaborate snare echoing Brabantio’s warning that “she has deceived her father, and may thee.”
May, right. The hatred is engineered with the military precision in which the play is set, with desert combat fatigues, a Gitmo-style army base complete with barbed wire, helicopter- and jet-strafing (lighting effects and design by Philip Rosenberg), as the always fabulous Lindsay Jones provides a strong sound design and original compositions (all except for the soldier’s karaoke rendition of the too-prescient “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”).
The modern touches work, and provide much of the humor – when Iago urges Roderigo to “put money in thy purse,” he uses his cell phone to make a credit card transfer. When Roderigo can’t get Brabantio’s attention by yelling, Iago uses an intercom buzzer. Emilia (Jessie Fisher) knees her nasty husband in the ‘nads when he refuses to ‘fess up to the handkerchief ruse.
But the greatest misstep is the speed at which Iago delivers his lines; sure, he’s got tons of text (the play probably should have been called “That Darn Iago”), and needs to zip along to keep the pace. Still, he should probably take his time to luxuriate over lines like “I hate the Moor” to help drive his jealousy, to make a case for the infamously inequitable payback he engineers.
Among the well-choreographed scene changes, viewers need to see Iago’s interiority, the genesis of his heart of darkness, the reason he concludes, “I ha’t, it is engender’d; Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.”
For Shakespeare’s 400th death year celebration, it’s important to continue to examine the naked humanity in these oft-performed texts, to know why “that’s not so good now,” and how one can “love too wisely, but too well.”
Othello runs through April 10 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. For tix and info, call 312-595-5600.