Othello’s Wars, Wives and Wickedness Heat Up Sixteenth-Century Venice

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey
, N.J.

Othello is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s boldest plays.  It has history, military, wars, generals, friends and foes (often the same people), race, the beauty of Venice, and a timeless story of love and betrayal.  It also has two of the best roles in theater history in Othello and his ensign, Iago.  It is a lengthy, though, and complicated, making it hard to produce well.

It is produced well, very well, in its latest revival at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, where it opened last weekend.

The 1604 play by William Shakespeare opens up with the arrival of a black Moor general, Othello, in Venice at a time of triumph for the army and a time when Venice, an independent republic made up of more than two hundred islands, is in political decline and threatened by the Turks.

We quickly meet Othello, his lovely young wife Desdemona, his trusted right hand man Michael Cassio, and the shady ensign/slave, Iago, who plans to convince Othello that his aide and Cassio are having an affair.  The reason:  he thinks that the destruction of Cassio will make Iago the chief aide in the army.

The plot of the play, which takes place in Venice and Cyprus, is the story of Iago’s efforts, low key and high boil, to weave his sick magic over his boss, using anyone he can to destroy Cassio.  Othello, a seasoned general, is not a seasoned husband.  He has a hard time understanding the wars between men and women and husbands and wives and falls for Iago’s tricks, and falls hard, believing his slave subtle suggestions over his wife.

This production of Othello is powerful, dramatic and stunning because director Bonnie Monte starts the play off slowly, ever so slowly, and builds the tension over three taut acts until everything explodes in a sensational finale.  People in the audience slide farther and farther to the edges of their seats as Othello and Iago grow as characters and the possibility of the crazy plot’s success grows.  You are drawn into the story and feel like you are in the play, an eyewitness to a two man war and an eyewitness to Venetian history.

It is one of the best Shakespeare plays the New Jersey Theater has ever produced and a real tribute to its stature a one of the nation’s top regional theaters.

There is a lot of history in Othello that Shakespeare weaves into the story.  The city is one of several city states and a republic when the play begins.  It has been an independent nation for hundreds of years by 1604 and, for a time, one of the busiest seaports in the world.  It had the best of everything—finance, business, art.  Venice had one of the largest navies and successful armies in the Mediterranean. The city/state was a major force in European politics.  Its history was also a very large and colorful stage for short stories and play.  Shakespeare adapted Othello from a short story by Cinthio, changing the plot and adding and subtracting characters.

And right in the middle of is lustrous history we find Othello and Iago.  Both are fictional, but Italian historians claim there might have been a Moor general operating in that area of the world in the first half of the sixteenth century.

When we first meet Othello, played magnificently by Lindsey Smiling, he is a dominant and commanding character, marching about the stage with regal majesty, back straight, head held high, eyes scalding.  He is a general who’s in control of his army, his wife, his aides and his friends.  The Venetian politicians who greet him talk of him admirably and soldiers who fought with him in past campaigns predict an efficient government run by him wherever he takes his army and navy.  Smiling also gives Othello the look of a victorious leader.  There is talk of his race and his marriage to the white Desdemona, but that is dismissed as the stories of his military glory grow.

Iago is one of Shakespeare’s deepest and most utterly contemptible characters.  He begins his deception with simple steps, never expecting one to lead to another and for each step to become more despicable.  Robert Cuccioli is a wonder as Iago.  He has dozens of physical movements, ranging from wringing his hands to shoulder shrugs and vocal sneers, that make him a very believable villain.  He will ruin anyone to get ahead in Venice and at some point he loses his humanity and just becomes a scheming machine, using anybody and anything to wreck Othello and Desdemona.  His disposition gets wilder and wilder as the play unfolds and he and Othello engage in their emotional duels.

Director Monte plays a nice game with the two men, making Iago the dominant figure in the first half of the play and Othello the more forceful of the two in the second half.  You can feel the heat rise as the play continues and the two battle each other for their place in history.

Victoria Mack is just about missing as Desdemona in act one.  She whirls about the stage and spouts her lines, but she seems more of a hollow high school drama student than an accomplished actress.  Then, under Monte’s tutelage, she grows in act two and by act three dominates the play with pizzazz as declares her innocence.

Monte also gets fine performances from Matt Bradford Sullivan as Roderigo, Bill Christ as Brabancio, the father of Desdemona, Jon Barker as Cassio, Susan Maris as Bianca, Cassio’s girlfriend, and Jacqueline Antaramian as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant.

The one big question you must ask yourself is why Othello, an experienced army general, listens to Iago rather than his wife.  How does he fall for Iago’s “bee in the bonnet” betrayal game and trust his wife less and less?  It is one of love’s secrets and the play’s strengths.

What does goes on between men and women in love?

Othello is a tough play to stage, but Monte has done a very impressive job of doing so.  She has put together an Othello that is an admirable drama, and a drama builds, minute by minute and hour by hour.  She has turned Othello and Iago into two large and deep characters engaged in a fatal battle amid history’s battles in Venice and in the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century.

PRODUCTION: Set: Bill Clarke, Costumes: Paul Canada, Lighting: Steve  Rosen, Sound: Karin Graybash. Director: Bonnie Monte.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at BChadwick@njcu.edu.

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