Othello is a difficult play for the modern woman — most of the time we just rage “why don’t the two of them just talk to each other fer chrissakes?!” Desdemona is often portrayed as naive and just a little stupid (careless inbreeding?) while Othello himself is a savage, incapable of reasoning and overly emotional.
In 1999 I saw a production of Othello here at OSF that blew me away. I disgraced myself in that I spoke out loud (and quite loudly) towards the end of the second act “I get it!” For the first time I saw Othello as a man in love for the first time, and just like any callow adolescent he was completely unable to make rational decisions about his emotions. Like a deaf man who suddenly has his hearing restored, the emotions are overwhelming. When they are positive — as they are early on in all new relationships — he is effusive and glories in how good it feels to be in love. But when things begin to go sour he has no prior experience to tell him this is normal, it will pass, it will get better. Finally, Othello made sense.
Nearly a decade later, Othello is back at OSF. This production took a different tack: Othello is mad.
The play itself provides for this interpretation: Othello falls down in an epileptic fit after being told that Cassio has confessed to having sex with Desdemona (apparently this line is frequently cut, I didn’t remember it from previous versions I’d seen), his demeanor gets increasingly ‘twitchy’ and he makes abrupt gestures as his speech becomes increasingly ragged. Ironically, his clothing becomes neater and more dapper as the play moves on. An indication of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)? Peter Macon plays Othello with expansiveness and joy. Its nearly painful to see this goodhearted, ferocious warrior turn into a man tormented by his own dark jealousy. It’s clear, however, that his jealousy comes from his own lack of self-esteem when dealing with ‘civilized’ people (“Rude am I in my speech / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” Act I, Scene 3, 81–82.)
Iago . . . that gleaming icon of evil is a delight to watch. Played by Dan Donohue with sly deviltry and exquisite timing, Iago turns out to be a a lot funnier than we’re used to seeing (Donohue’s physical acting is some of the best in the company). As always, the audience is left to wonder at his motive’s — is all of this *really* from being passed over by Othello in favor of ‘untried’ but clever Cassio? Here, we are given a glimpse that jealousy (ah symmetry!) may be also a factor in Iago’s hatred of the moor: “’twixt my sheets … (the Moor has done my office” Act I, Scene 3, 393–394.”
Desdemona is not Shakepeare’s best creations, but Sarah Rutan does her best, playing her with strength and a deep love for this foreign man that never falters, even when he kills her. Her physical acting was also superb, the body language matching the emotions and words generated with exquisite appropriateness.
This is a play of contrasts: Othello strides about in tight-fitting clothing in dark colors that he covers over with a gorgeous (sensual) robe in sunlight gold and (at the end) a cream-colored overcoat. Iago wears only gleaming black leather from his long overcoat to his boots. Briefly we see him in a plain linen shirt over his breeches, but that is quickly discarded for a bare torso as the action roars to its death-filled end. The final image, in fact, is nearly cinematic in its effect: the newlyweds lie upon one another in the marriage bed, wounded Cassio stands to the left, having just ordered Iago away to be tortured. Iago turns and moves to center stage, his reddish hair blond in the light, his skin milk pale under his overcoat, and the blood of his fresh wound drawing the eye into what suddenly seems like the only color on the stage.
Iago takes a half step forward, reaches out and the lights go out.