By William Shakespeare, Directed by Allie Kolaski
Produced by the Princeton Shakespeare Company
Oct. 18th-20th at the Class of 1970 Theater in Whitman
$10 general, $8 for students
There is a class of people, presumably male, who hold fast to that doctrine known as ontological misogyny. It is a somewhat queer worldview these close-minded people embrace, one which omits from their ontology that abstract concept known as “female”. How then might an ontological misogynist account for the fact that there are females in this world? Well, one might begin by associating instead every female with her husband, and thus refer to a man’s primary and secondary presence. This silly attempt, however, fails to account for women who are unmarried or even those with multiple husbands. A brighter individual from this breed might then propose that to each female, one could associate the father and not the husband, for surely to each female, there is a father. This however, leads to the problem that a man can have multiple daughters – such a system quickly becomes rather confusing.
Consider instead a system in which the concept of gender is viewed through the lens of clothing. One must temporarily adopt this backwards mindset when viewing the Princeton Shakespeare Company’s most recent production of Othello. The talented all-female cast (directed by Allie Kolaski ‘13) strives to on the one hand convey the depth of the play in its original glory while on the other hand replace every male character with an actress. Hence, one must temporarily suspend the usual notion of male and female and instead look to the costumes— a female is denoted by a dress and a male by pants.
Whether for lack of male talent or an attempt to have a new perspective on the tragedy, the end result is something very peculiar. Othello, as we all know and hold dear, examines the issue of race through the relationship between the Moorish general and all the other characters. The theory with this new production is that by replacing all actors with actresses, the emphasis is placed on the idea of race and not gender. But what this accomplishes is merely simplify the underlying themes of an otherwise very complex play.
While Shakespeare tells us the main character of the play is the “black ram” Othello (Uchechi Kalu ’14), the real focus of this tragedy is Iago (CC Kellogg ‘13), a man so hell-bent on revenge that he spares no one in the wake of his destruction. It is no longer a tale of an innocent olive-skinned victim of a general manipulated by his ensign to strangle the fair Desdemona, but rather a depiction of a man wronged, fueled by his desire for revenge, willing to give up title, reputation and ultimately his life to see this wrong fixed. He is a tragic anti-hero, whose only fault is having that very human trait known as jealousy: jealous that a less qualified man has ascended to the rank of a lieutenant over himself; jealous that such an unseasoned babe of a man, a person more arithmetician than warrior is chosen over himself, a loyal and capable soldier. And it is not entirely unreasonable to suspect that deep inside this prideful man is the notion that a Moor is racially inferior and unfit for the position of a general. Iago in a soliloquy hints that the Moor has had sexual relations with his wife Emilia (Taylor Mallory ’13) and fueled by this hatred towards the man who has essentially betrayed him, strives to wreak havoc in his life through that very same agent: jealousy. As Othello had once betrayed Iago, so now does Iago seek to betray Othello. And oh the irony, as with each utterance of the epithet “honest Iago”, one cannot but help to chuckle to oneself knowing the rude awakening which awaits the Moor. It would seem therefore, that if one were to only write a single sentence to describe the Bard’s play, that Iago would be the subject and Othello merely the object.
By this, it becomes almost shallow to merely examine the role race plays throughout the story, for note how infrequently Othello interacts with the other characters. The issue of race exists in the beginning when Brabantio (Maeli Goren ‘15) reacts in horror upon a hidden Iago suggesting a black ram is making “the beast with two backs” with his white ewe, but towards the end this becomes irrelevant. Gender, however, is embedded throughout the whole story and perhaps is as important as the theme of race. Despite having only three named female figures in the play, consider the importance each plays in the story. The pure and angelic Desdemona (Evelyn Giovine ‘16) represents naiveté. (Coincidentally, Giovine dons an entirely appropriate white dress and speaks in a very soft-spoken manner and does an excellent job in depicting a traditional Desdemona). Through Desdemona, we see an almost childlike innocence, true to her husband Othello. In her character and her fate, we see the truly grotesque nature of the double standard—for Desdemona is ultimately killed on grounds of a perceived infidelity, whereas the brute Othello is allowed to have sexual relations with Emilia. Emilia becomes the progressive figure in the play, and attempts to assist her husband to garner his favor. In this futile attempt, she ultimately plays the integral role in securing Desdemona’s handkerchief and thus provides the undeniable evidence Iago needs to manipulate Othello. In the last act, Emilia emphatically remarks to Desdemona “who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?” It is therefore quite appropriate for our Emilia to wear a black dress to play the more pragmatic female counterpart to Desdemona. It is only at the very end, in horror, that Emilia realizes the true extent of her husband’s vile nature and dies realizing the wrong she has caused. The last named female role is Bianca (Maeli Goren ’15), a prostitute, who wears a short flashy black dress and tends Michael Cassio and his “needs”. She is described as a “creature that dotes on Cassio”, beguiling many through her services, yet is beguiled by the very same Michael Cassio. She is a tragic figure in the sense that she tries desperately to win the love of Lieutenant Cassio with little success. Her jealous rage after realizing that Cassio has gifted her a secondhand handkerchief reveals that this strumpet has an emotional investment in him and further demonstrates the different expectations in the two characters. Cassio desires only physical intimacy and does not care for Bianca outside the realm of sex as seen by his hesitance to have supper with her. This casts Bianca in a sympathetic light and through this one sees the extent of the complexity of the three female figures in the play.
It can almost be argued these three – that is, Bianca, Emilia and Desdemona – are pre-Freudian incarnations of the id, ego and superego respectively. Bianca is controlled by her emotions towards a man who only desires her physical body and thus ruled only by the pleasure principle, seeking only to win his favor. Emilia is pragmatic, and only seeks to advance herself and her husband, and in so doing cheats on Iago with Othello to presumably help Iago’s career and her own standing. Desdemona, an embodiment of morality, remains loyal and for this dies at the hands of her own husband.
But the role gender plays is not confined in the three female roles. Consider the toll it takes on the men. Take Roderigo (Rachel Wilson ’16), a man so burdened with unbridled lust towards Desdemona. He seeks only physical intimacy and stops at no cost to obtain her favor. This human lust becomes the very reins with which Iago steers Roderigo to do his dirty work. In fact, the play even begins with an Iago, who while remaining in the darkness, whispers into the ear of Roderigo to disturb the slumber of Desdemona’s father Brabantio. (It is interesting to note that Iago is clothed entirely black, presumably to cast him as the true devilish figure and perhaps make the statement that it is not the color of one’s skin which makes one evil, but rather the color of the intents of one’s heart.) Roderigo becomes the wallet of Iago, and the poor idiot goes as far as selling all his worldly possessions to provide Iago with the necessary resources to fund his nefarious plans. Roderigo even goes through a stage of depression, contemplating suicide over the affection of Desdemona, or lack thereof.
Unfortunately, though, in the case of this production, his lust, passion, and pitiful dogged persistence cannot be adequately expressed by Wilson to those of us who lack the imaginative skills to temporarily suspend the usual notions of this reality. Likewise, casting Kalu as Othello robs the usual juxtaposition of a witty, presumably less masculine Iago against a bigger, stronger, and physically superior Othello – in other words, the usual clash between intellect and brute strength one expects from the play. Othello is trained in the art of war and is completely unfamiliar with guile, deceit and betrayal, simple tools Iago has honed and mastered. It is usually an overwhelmingly larger Othello who strangles a helpless Desdemona, not a situation where it would seem plausible that Othello could lose the physical struggle. (Here I’ll note as an aside that the screams from the physical struggle of the two female leads in the strangulation scene could only be described as an indistinguishable, uncomfortable high-pitched shriek.)
This criticism is not to be confused with disapproval, but there are definitely more viable options that PSC neglected. For example, an all female cast save a single man to play Othello would further reinforce that the character Othello is out of place. Since Elizabethan England, it might be argued that race is not as great a dividing factor as it once was. It seems, therefore, that holding firmly to the racial difference between Othello and the others at the cost of losing the traditional gender roles and identity is not a fair trade.
Indeed, this production takes a non-traditional approach, but does not surprise or evoke any strong emotion as say, the 1997 Shakespeare Theatre’s “photo-negative” production of Othello, casting Sir Patrick Stewart as Othello (sans blackface) and an otherwise all African-American cast. It would seem then that with this upcoming production, while well done, might leave one wanting moor males.