I arrived two or three minutes late to the Gladstone due to the parking issues and bad time management after my day of drudgery, so I was looking forward to an evening of interesting theatre. I slid into the back seats of the theatre while Iago was professing his hatred of the Moor to the audience. He is dressed as a Union Army soldier in the American Civil War.
There are usually two schools of thought on Shakespeare being set in new surroundings to bring forward context that resonates with modern audiences. Some arrive excited by the potential and others arrive with trepidation at what their beloved bard will be subjected to. There is a high risk reward aspect and a company has to attack the material bravely with gusto. Theatre Kraken chose to set Othello during the American Civil War and they drove the tale home with confidence.
The set is comprised of simple blood red banners spaced evenly apart that hang upstage from the ceiling to the floor. It gives a militaristic feel and provides hiding spots for Othello to surreptitiously eavesdrop on his suspicions. On either side of the stage are elevated areas with steps where the actors sit and plot their plans or go about their daily rituals.
Regardless of the setting it is the superlative language of Shakespeare that drives the action and director Don Fex allows his cast to wrench out the heart and soul of the words with the nuance and passion that it deserves. There are moments of muted barely audible but clear words that have you captured in their intensity that nicely contrast the intense loud bravado of military bluster and conquest. If you are true to the language and comprehend the words the meter will be there and the poetry will come through with honesty.
Michael Swatton plays Iago with a disarming charm, hoodwinking his prey into trusting him. He drops subtle innuendo and allows himself to be interrogated against his will to implicate. This is scripted by Shakespeare, but it is Swatton’s deft playing that prompts the audience to laugh at every reference to his honesty.
Chris Lucas’ Othello has a confident swagger and a confident southern drawl. He runs a gamut of emotional scope that is staggering. At one point he is confident and secure, then doubtful, angry and gobsmacked by despair. The realization that Desdemona was true and he has removed her from his life in that shattering agonizing scream of “Desdemona is dead!” comes from a place deep in his gut that wrenches his and our collective hearts.
Desdemona as played by Meghan de Chastelain is sweet and devoted enveloped by love. She bathes in it which makes her bewilderment and hurt completely effective when she subsequently suffers abuse… and as many abused do, she justifies and excuses her abuser shouldering and assigning herself some of the guilt.
Robin Hodge as Emelia is the epitome of duty, to Othello, Iago and Desdemona. Her strong performance is most illuminated in her passionate plea for justice to Desdemona near the end of the play. Nicholas Dave Amott as Cassio is similarly dedicated to duty and is very effective as the disgraced soldier pleading for redemption. Steph Goodwin also deserves mention as a stuttering messenger,as Montano but particularly in her compelling portrayal as Bianca a working girl passionately in love with Cassio.
Some might find setting the play during the civil war in the ranks of the Union army incongruous to the references in the play. I do not. If you are true to the bard’s language and the intent of his storytelling you will not fail. The costuming and decoration can serve as a reinforcement of where the play is set or a cross reference to where we might be going.
If we do not observe where we came from or the dangers of where we are headed we are doomed to repeat our errors. We must question what we are told, examine our bigotry, our entitlement and our misogyny whether we are in the 17th, 19th or 21st century. If we don’t, as Othello eloquently illustrates, it will end tragically.
Theatre Kraken’s play is a triumph of how great storytelling works. Believe in the words and express them with truth. It’s simple but not always easy. We see a lot of big budget Shakespeare in Ontario, but if you perform with conviction and heart you can move an audience on a shoestring budget. The play is the thing after all.
Othello – Chris Lucas
Iago – Michael Swatton
Desdemona – Meghan de Chastelain
Cassio – Nicholas Dave Amott
Rodorigo – Ian McMullen
Emilia – Robin Hodge
Brabantio/Gratiano – William Beddoe
Duke – Allan Zander
Bianca/Montano/Messenger – Steph Goodwin
Lodovico – Lawrence Evenchick
Director – Don Fex
Stage Manager – Christine Mathieu
Assistant Stage Manager – Annie Martin
Production Manager – Christine Hecker
Audition Assistants – Samantha Clarke, Rachel Rumstein
Costume Designer – Trish Murray
Fight Choreographer – Aaron Lajeunesse
Graphic Designer – Emm Legault
Hair Designer – Jacqueline Borutski
Lighting Designer – John Solman
Music Director – Chris Lucas
Props Lead – Brenda Solman
Scenic Artist – Jess Preece
Set Designer – Don Fex
Sound Designer – Don Fex