Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hot, Powerful "Othello" at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Scholars have debated for centuries exactly why Iago does what he does in Shakespeare's "Othello." When Othello asks his former ensign for the motive behind his crimes, Iago refuses to say. His answer: "What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word."

By that point, what we know is very, very nasty. In one fell swoop, he has poisoned Othello, a successful general, against his wife, lovely and virtuous Desdemona, and removed Michael Cassio, his rival for the rank of lieutenant. Staging a drunken brawl works perfectly to stain Cassio's reputation, and pushing his wife, Emilia, to steal an important handkerchief from Desdemona, thereafter planting it in Cassio's room, is just the ticket to inflame Othello with suspicions of an affair between Desdemona and Cassio. With that in motion, Iago takes delight in the fact that Othello is crazed with jealousy, Cassio is ruined, and Desdemona is besmirched in her husband's eyes.

So is Iago just plain evil, spinning schemes for the fun of it? Clearly he's angry about Cassio's promotion, but he could've just gotten rid of him without all the attendant mayhem. Why go to the extent he does? Why use his wife and his friend Roderigo as pawns, letting them suffer without a second thought? Is he seething with envy over Othello's prowess as a military man and the acclaim he's received from the Duke of Venice? Seething with racism and fury that a Moor with dark skin has not only triumphed as a leader but nabbed a prize like the lily-white Desdemona? Or all of the above?

For the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, director John Sipes and his Iago, played by Matt Penn, err on the side of insanity. We see Penn's Iago forge his diabolical plans with passion and even a hint of frenzy, compulsively running his hands over his neck and chest, making it all very personal and quite creepy. It may've been more of a factor of the recent heatwave, but the fact that this Iago seemed to be reveling in the feel of his own sweat certainly ramped up the creepiness.

At the onset, Daver Morrison's Othello is a proper figure to envy, magnificent in glowing green trousers and a cape designed by Helene Siebrits, every bit the confident general who believes the world (or at least Venice) is his oyster. And after Iago spins his web, as his doubts begin to cloud his brain, Morrison shows a descent into madness that is both inevitable and terrifying. As his Desdemona, Amanda Catania creates a vibrant, warm woman, one who clearly adores -- and is passionate for -- her husband.

In support, Charlie Wright does excellent work as pitiable Roderigo, Andy Talen makes for a tempestuous Cassio, and Corliss Preston is a stunner when she pulls out all the stops with her scorned and scornful Emilia.

Sipes has also staged some scary, shadowy fights, while Michael Rasbury's moody musical compositions set the proper tone.

All in all, the ISF "Othello" is powerful and hot-blooded, disturbing and passionate.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Manor

Director: John Sipes
Costume Designer: Helen Siebrits
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Composer/Sound Designer: Michael Rasbury
Stage Manager: Sara Bubenik
Voice/Text Coach: Kevin Rich
Fight Director/Choreographer: Alex Miller
Dance Choreographer: Greg Merriman

Cast: Matt Penn, Charlie Wright, Henson Keys, Dylan Paul, Nick Demeris, Daver Morrison, Andy Talen, Michael Gamache, Andrew Rogalny, Jr, Zack Powell, Devon Nimerfroh, David Sitler, Alexander Pawlowski IV, Amanda Catania, David Price, Corliss Preston and Kate McDermott.

Remaining performances: June 30; July 5, 7, 13, 15, 21, 25, 28 and 31; August 3 and 9.

For ticket information, click here.


  1. Another one that I, deprived East Coast-er, must miss. As you say, a great play with an enigma at its center. I saw a fine production at the Old Globe in San Diego, summer of 1967, especially memorable for its Iago, Anthony Zerbe. Some of us may remember him as a mainstay of series TV, playing a veteran cop or whatever. What he did was play Iago very simply, almost genially. Of course he puts on a friendly surface to others, but he did it in his private moments with the audience too, telling us about the horrible things he planned to do in a chillingly matter-of-fact way, as if anybody would react the same. And so, without seeming to "do anything" with the character, he built up this picture of a casual sociopath, who feels nothing amiss about wrecking any number of lives, just because things haven't gone his way. But all of that was our reaction, he just kept his low-key shrugging "honest" manner going without commenting on any of it. He spoiled me for other Iagos.

    And then the next night I went back to see "All's Well That Ends Well," and he was playing the small part (often cut) of the jester Lavatch, with the shtick of a Renaissance borscht-belt comic. And the Othello actor played the braggart bully Parolles. The pleasures of a repertory company....

  2. Our Othello was Jacques the previous night, while Iago was Duke Frederick the usurper. I wondered at the beginning, with the way Iago was sort of lasciviously running his hands over his neck area, if it was a way to wipe away the sweat pouring off him. It was 100 degrees for AYLI and 90 for Othello, but the actors seemed to be feeling it more in Othello, probably because of the Renaissance capes and gowns as opposed to the 1930s clothing. Having said that, they were pretty well covered -- shirts, vests, a plaid lumberjack coat for old Adam to hide the shirt and overall he would wear as Corin -- and I can't imagine how they survived. The melting issue seemed worse for Iago and Othello, though.

    So, anyway, what I took as a character point may've just been a reaction to being bathed in sweat because of the weather.

  3. Perhaps a typo with Cassio as Cassius?

  4. Uh oh! I swear the heat has addled my brain. Andy Talen is fairly lean but doesn't have that hungry look, after all. Still, it might be fun to let that Cassius loose in this play.

    Thanks for the heads up! Fixed it!