Matt Reviews Milwaukee Rep’s “Othello”

Last Tuesday, I attended the Milwaukee Repertory Theater‘s Pay-What-You-Can preview performance of William Shakespeare’s Othello.  (If you haven’t taken advantage of the Rep’s Pay-What-You-Can program, it’s exactly what it sounds like, and it’s a wonderful service offered to the community.)  For those of you unfamiliar, Othello is Shakespeare’s tragedy about an eponymous moorish general and his bride Desdemona, who have recently eloped.  The villain of the story is Iago (one of literature and theater’s all time greatest villains), who is angry at Othello for being passed over for promotion (Othello instead promoted Michael Cassio, who Iago does not consider worthy).  The play relates Iago’s plot to destroy Othello by convincing Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio.  The play is ultimately an exploration of jealousy, which is the undoing both of Othello and Iago.

In Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s adaptation, directed by the Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clements, is reset in the context of a motorcycle gang (it should come as no surprise that the production is sponsored by Harley-Davidson).  But this production is no simple product placement.  The adaptation truly works elegantly, revealing new facets to the plot and various characters that I previously had not noticed.  Additionally, as was pointed out in a pre-show Rep-in-Depth info session, the play’s elements of jealousy, drunken debauchery, violence, revenge, racism, sexism, and even prostitution are not uncommon to biker culture.

The motorcycle club in question is what is known as a one-percenter club, proudly distinguishing themselves as the outlaw element within the biker world.  The clubs are rigidly structured with officer positions and hierarchies.  Costume designer Todd Edward Ivins took care to design authentic biker regalia emblazoned on the leather vests and jackets, further explicating the parallels between the army and this biker club, called “The Venetians.”

The actors were across the board exemplary, expertly transforming Shakespeare’s original text into the gruff snarls and growls that you would expect in this setting.  Lee E. Ernst (who recently excelled as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockinbird) as Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, and Deborah Staples as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s handmaiden, are particularly adept at making this transformation.  Watching them, it was easy to forget that this was not the setting that Shakespeare had originally attended.  (Ernst returned in the second half of the play as another character, Montano, but it was his Brabantio that blew me away.)  Lindsay Smiling, making his Milwaukee Rep debut in the title role, completely captured the character’s alpha dominance, his strong leadership skills and charisma.  Othello is level-headed and pragmatic in leading his army, yet becomes unhinged and obsessed when Iago begins to sow seeds of doubt in his mind, and Smiling completely conveys this nuance.

There were also characters that were altered by the adaptation.  The most obvious example is Iago, performed by Gerard Neugent.  Unlike the rest of the actors, Neugent performs the role with somewhat elevated speech and diction, at times channeling the kind of evil British accent we recognize in Anthony Hopkins in the Hannibal movies.  In the beginning of the play I found this distracting, thinking that perhaps Neugent was unable to adapt his voice like the rest of the cast, but as the story progressed, I found that it worked for his character.  A biker gang Iago would indeed consider himself on a pedestal above the rest of the club, and the voice allowed us to clearly picture Iago as the puppet master, toying with his marionettes.  What I don’t think totally worked, however, was Iago’s malice, which seemed to come and go.  During Iago’s many monologues, the lights would turn dimly red, casting him in a hellish glow, and he turned legitimately devilish.  While interacting with the other characters, however, Iago sometimes appeared to be the diminutive misfit of the otherwise rough and tumble group, and as a result there were lines that elicited laughter from the audience (even during the hair-raising climax) that seemed to prevent me from completely buying into Iago’s supposed encompassing evil.  I’m still not completely sure where I come down on this particular version of the iconic character, but if nothing else it was a fresh and unique take on the antagonist, forcing the audience to consider his actions and motivations anew.

This biker adaptation also presented a new and darker take on the entire cast.  When Othello and his followers are soldiers in the Venetian army in the context of a war with the Turks, we can forgive them their violence, or at least overlook it as a product of wartime.  When the characters are recast as motorcycle club members, and the Turks are a rival motorcycle club, they are no longer soldiers, but rather petty street criminals, and there were moments during this production that gave me pause and at times diminished my sympathy for the characters.  In addition, in the original text, the Turkish army is destroyed at sea by a massive tempest (which is discussed, but the audience does not see), which is traditionally staged as a literal storm.  Obviously the idea of a storm destroying a motorcycle club doesn’t really fit, so the tempest is adapted into a violent fight, performed onstage, with gunfire and knife stabbings.  Watching the characters that we have come to identify with violently attack and destroy another club on their own turf did complicate and disrupt my feelings for the characters, though within the context of this adaptation I’m not sure that there was a way to avoid this particular issue.

Setting Othello in the context of biker culture also emphasized the play’s themes of racism and sexism.  Watching these dynamics play out in a modern subculture made them all the more compelling, particularly the relationship between Desdemona and the rest of the club.  Desdemona, performed by Mattie Hawkinson, is portrayed as sweet, naive, and innocent, as she in the original text.  Given her surroundings however in this context, her innocence and naiveté are even further emphasized.  We see her as the girl next door who has fallen in with the wrong crowd.  It’s interesting as she interacts with the other members of the club who perhaps do not respect her, but must fein respect as a tribute to Othello.  What is truly compelling is her relationship with Emilia, Iago’s street-tough wife and Desdemona’s best friend.  She is Desdemona’s protector through this rough world, helping her along and showing her away.  Their conversation in Act IV Scene iii when they discuss relationships between men and women and fidelity is one of the most successful and compelling in the production.

This adaptation also lent itself to some brilliant staging choices.  With modern adaptations of Shakespeare, monologues and soliloquies often stick out like sore thumbs, because people simply don’t talk like that.  Clements made some fantastic decisions in this production that smoothed out these moments brilliantly.  Two examples that come to mind are a long monologue which Iago spends contemplatively rolling a cigarette and – even more effectively – an extended dialogue between Othello and Iago that they spend repairing a motorcycle together.  By incorporating these mundane activities, in which we are prone to idle thoughts and drawn out discussions, the archaic text becomes utterly modern and seamless.

I cannot lie, I was slightly (though not overly) skeptical when I heard the concept for this adaptation.  Adaptations are always hit and miss, and are often more of a partially-realized concept than a fully-fledged artistic vision.  This production of Othello, however, comes to life in its new setting, adding new layers of nuance and complexity to one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare plays.  This play, with incredible acting, wonderful sets and costumes and truly inspired directing, will keep you riveted from beginning to end.

A

For tickets to see Othello at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, visit their website or call their Box Office at 414.224.9490.

Photos from MilwaukeeRep.com

Othello from Milwaukee Repertory Theater on Vimeo.

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4 thoughts on “Matt Reviews Milwaukee Rep’s “Othello”

  1. A riviting review on a riviting production! Thanks Matt. This is also one of my favorite plays by The Bard, and I was a little skeptical on how it would work in Harley garb. It was amazing – I thought it really brought the story to life. Great points on how the cruelty that we so often allow in a military setting suddenly became more abhorent in this setting.

    John Jansen

  2. Attended on Saturday evening. Left at intermission along with plenty of other people. The Quadracci Powerhouse was maybe a third full. This play is not entertaining at all unless you are a solid fan of Shakespeare.

  3. You left at intermission? You’re not a solid fan of Shakespeare? What were you expecting, the Glee version of Othello? Pitiful groundling.

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