This winter StanShakes, Stanford’s well-loved Shakespeare Company, strikes again. Unlike last quarter, when it won us over through “clean, raunchy, intelligent humor,” it is through heart-wrenching tragedy that StanShakes makes its presence felt with this production.
There are perhaps no better words to describe “Othello” than deep, dark and intense. While adapting it to the modern context, the Stanford Shakespeare Company still maintains the dramatic splendor of one of the world’s greatest tragedies. Among the most original features of this adaptation are the color scheme that never strays far from the intermingling of black, white and grey; the underlying theme of war in a modern context; and the gender-bending that turns Iago and Amelia into a lesbian couple.
The acting is, as usual, top-notch. Diante Singley ’14, as Othello, subjugates the audience by the potency of his performance; whether he is exploding with fury or drowning in his own tears, it is hard to take one’s eyes off of him due to the sheer intensity he brings to the role.
Nora Tjossem ’15 slips into the character of the scheming and conniving villain Iago with consummate skill, with everything from the rolling of her eyes to the inflections of her voice enhancing the irony in her character’s lines. I guarantee that you will leave the performance convinced that Iago could never have been played by anyone but a woman.
With most of the play riding on their shoulders, their performances alone make the play worth seeing–the remaining cast and production elements make it a play not to be missed.
Desdemona (Rachel Purcell ’13) is as unfailingly sweet and submissive as the character demands; Cassio (Kevin Heller ’16) is brilliant in the scene of bitter repentance following his drunken folly; Amelia (Sunny Huang ’14) is a revelation in the last scene of mounting tension and multiple deaths.
As is their tradition every year, StanShakes looked for a setting that would be particularly appropriate for their play. This year their choice was the Elliott Programming Center near Lake Lagunita, which works well, especially in conjunction with the lighting effects. The sound effects were few and far between, but, when used, greatly enhanced the dramatic effectiveness of the play.
The costumes, overseen by Juliet Charnas ’15, added much to the overall flavor of the play: apart from the originality of the color scheme, the choice of garments–be it the flowing white dress intended to convey Desdemona’s chastity or the sharp tailor suit designed to underline Iago’s conniving nature–was right on.
It is no small feat to do justice to one of the most poignant tragic plays of Western tradition. To make it adaptable to the modern context is admirable, but to add to this mix a good dose of originality does not fall short of impressive. “Othello” is yet another play that StanShakes can be proud of.
A WORD WITH…
Kevin Hurlbutt ’14 is the man behind the play, the one whose artistic vision has propelled ‘Othello’ from a germinating idea to the stage. For Hurlbutt, war and racism were two of the concerns at the very heart of the play.
“We set the play in the modern world, partly in a fictional country called Venice and partly in Cyprus where the war is being fought,” Hurlbutt said. “That idea of being involved militarily in countries that are very far away is very present in America today.
“Iago’s whole intention to use other people as pawns and to engage behind the scene is paralleled by the way in which warfare is changing these days, with the use of drones and cyber-attacks,” Hurlbutt explained. “Our greatest warriors are no longer storming battlefields but are working behind computer screens to order and execute attacks.
“Our design aesthetic is black and white because one of the major themes of Othello is racism,” he continued, “and we [convey] this idea of a world that desperately needs Othello but doesn’t realize that it doesn’t treat black people very well.”
Diante Singley ’14 finds that Othello stands out from all Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes.
“Othello is very different from Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes because although he has a high status and is respected, he is also so loathed because of his racial background–because of who he is and what he looks like–that it adds a completely new element [to the play],” he said.
He also talks about how this is a play that Stanford students can relate to.
“This is about someone who’s been shunned and found him disgusting for what he looks like and the people he represents for his whole life by women,” Singley said. “He finally finds this woman who loves him and is perfect for him, and then it’s all ruined. I feel that story, in essence, minus the murder and the cheating, is something that Stanford students can relate to: the idea of finding love and losing it before you can actually see whether it works really works.”
Nora Tjossem ’15 explored how transforming a traditionally male character into a woman has repercussions throughout the whole play.
“The theme of suspicion is very different when it’s in a female relationship [between Amelia and Iago], and theme of women in the army and of having a female being overlooked for promotion is introduced,” Tjossem said.
One question was always on her mind when she read or rehearsed the play: “As a women, how would you be thinking of these issues, and how does that change the nuances of the play?”
Tjossem also spoke about ambition as one of the prime themes of Othello.
“I think in Silicon Valley especially, there is a view of ambition as a really good thing,” she said. “For the most part, Stanford students are not cutthroat, but I think it’s a really fine line to tread. Something in Iago that’s really painful is that he keeps over-reaching, and you want to tell him to hold back. You feel there’s no way he can get out of this unscathed.
“Like Satan in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ Iago is multi-faceted, and we can identify with him.”
Rachel Purcell ’13 put forward her conception of Othello as, first and foremost, a tragic love story.
“Othello is one of the best experiences I’ve had because we’ve been emphasizing the text a lot,” she said. “There’s so much about love and jealousy and betrayal and the human experience–it’s a tragic love story.”
On the flawed nature of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship, Purcell elaborated, “It was hard playing Desdemona because in many ways she’s kind of the opposite of what a modern woman is told she should be; she loves him although he lashes out and hits her, and stands by him until he is literally killing her…The audience needs to remember that this is a 16th-century text, and we can’t judge it by our standards.
“I think that she does have a more complex character–she has her own rebellious streak and motivations, although she eventually gives her life for love,” Purcell said.
The Costumes Director
For Juliet Charnas ’15, the limited color scale and specific setting made this an experience unlike any she had ever encountered before.
“Othello is set on a modern-day military base, so it’s a lot of suits and ties and button-up shirts, a lot of stuff that’s easier for me to buy rather than actually make, so I haven’t done much original sewing for the show,” Charnas said.
“The director has everything set in black and white, which is interesting but difficult for costumes,” she continued. “You don’t want to have the all same color on stage at the same time–we’re trying to work with the grey scale and make it look like a diverse body of costumes.
“We also have really cool badges!”