Any relationship involves a delicate dance of power. We negotiate and bargain the trivial to keep the little sparks alive. In love, we try to set aside little irritations for the sake of the oneness. If we’re in for the long haul, most of the everyday is both beautiful and eclipsed by our understanding of whom we care for.
And in this dance, Post5 has stripped bare Shakespeare’s Othello and rearranged the steps.
In director Caitlin Fisher-Draeger’s production the Other is not the Moor, as in the traditional interpretation of Othello. Rather, the have-nots are the Other: the inexplicable Iago, whose passions begin and end in fury; Cassio, who fights for love and liege; and in the end, the motives that lie behind Othello and Desdemona’s desire for each other is the real alienation.
Post5 has done some Shakesqueering: most of the roles are played by women, the one exception being Rodrigo, acted by Sean Doran, who shifts the weight of his walking leg while the other clumps in a cast. He has no affection for Desdemona, and the implied ulterior motives to help Iago: he is half a man, his impotence in stark contrast to the band of Amazons who make the stage.
There are libraries written that try to unpack the meanings and significance of Shakespeare. Are his characters symbolic of places, events, the way a Renaissance English person would take in his plays in comparison to us? While all of this scholarship is a long and beautiful journey, it speaks more of our desire to demystify Shakespeare’s genius as a writer and understand ourselves. To make it simple, as a good writer, Shakespeare knew that we live with a set human palette that we may never get to the bottom of, but how it unravels can be explained. He knew the motivations: we fall in love, we want power, we want what we can’t have, we’re easily misled or confused. As a writer he described the building of the road to disaster or triumph. He observed and had an inherent knowledge of the cogs and ticks that wind and move with our primal past. The green-eyed monster of jealousy has visited us all, and where it comes from is some unconscious place beyond the pale. We will never escape our biology and how it plays out in the contradictory need to be close to others. Writers such as John Fante and Charles Bukowski embraced this with a brutalism in stark words, and in a sense are they are Shakespeare’s urban inheritance. Arturo Bandini is a Hamlet shaking off his psychotic break from failure at life. A Falstaff drinking to his death in a seedy hotel off of Sunset Strip needs little background checks.
The background for Post5’s Othello is a military compound, almost a prison, shot out by a blinding whiteness, as if the station is on the moon. There’s no full spectrum of colors – just naked light, with some yellow or black here and there. The women live within a completely militarized psychology, never mourning that they live in a state of constant battle. The traditional feminine touches they bring to try to make a home are obsolete. Caring or affection seem irrelevant. This emotional void touches the production throughout: the cognitive dissonance begins with just a few steps, and will end the play not with a default to a bloodbath and sorrow, but with a crescendo that shuts down in an absence of relief.
The only chemistry that exists between Ithica Tell’s Othello and Joellen Sweeney’s Desdemona is the first fiery lust of compulsion to make from a bed an eternal bond. There are sweet moments when they kiss and embrace, but the scene in which Tell is called out from the wedding chamber by Iago, and is in full rush to buckle the thick leather belt around her fatigues, sweeps up a newness of attraction that here and there pauses to be comforting in between the sweat of new lovers.
Side by side, the long history of genuine care and affection from men to women is an equal history of violence. By making all of the major characters women, Post5’s Othello takes out the dynamic of those histories and looks at the struggle of power with a naked eye. The often unspoken knowledge that men can overpower women physically is made irrelevant. In the same way, Post5 has shifted the view of race. In this production it’s not a matter of a colonial power using a military general to subdue his own people, but rather a look at the universal issue of those who have power and those who do not. Post5 has always put forward a diverse cast, often answering the big theatrical debate about inclusion by just casting a good actor for the part. In something of a triumph for this company, we look less at Othello as the first classic of the Western canon to have a black person as the lead, and more at Othello as a human led astray by blind loyalty – something that can happen to anyone.
Tell, as Othello, is magnificent, delivering her words with a delicacy that, if the “thous” and couplets were redacted, could be everyday contemporary speech. She enters the stage not as a military general, but a hero of the skies, a kind of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry landing on a tiny planet. When Iago convinces her that the only real moments of her life were a lie, she palms her head at the loss of honesty, and unveil a dryness that reaches to her soul.
Sweeney’s Desdemona is a sweet young doe on the surface, but between her and Tell it’s made clear that Desdemona is a night-and-day young bride, one who accepts the military general for her triumphs in battle and one who has seen all the world in its artifice and natural horror. Tell’s performance in describing how she won Desdemona’s father over with courage becomes surreal, as if Luis Buñuel had sliced up eyeballs to honor the histories of Herodotus. This Desdemona lives in a vacuum of pity. While she loves and seeks out every affirmation from her Othello, it is only because she is trapped by the illusion of Othello’s strength, while at the same time objectifying the horror of murder and death her wife has made as a career: Desdemona breathes a disconnected air in her every stitch of the needle and singing of song. Here is the loneliness of their love, one that seems true, but is not based upon full acceptance: Othello will never leave the killing field, and Desdemona is deceived by her own emotions.
Jessica Tidd’s Iago is a strychnine of the soul. She’s just evil, plain and simple. No dark waters of a complicated childhood or growing up on the wrong side of the tracks – Tidd’s Iago is one thing only; she hates the Moor. As she plots and weaves Othello’s destruction, it comes and goes in a direct balance with Othello’s disguised lust as love for Desdemona. Tidd curls and weighs the anger of her every finger, and works measure by measure to undo any future that could happen, except death. She is so nakedly dark that her own death is at times delightful to her: it is her beloved destruction.
Lava Alapai’s Cassio is the balance between the triangle of Othello, Desdemona and Iago. War, lust, and destruction fall way to her chaos. She plays Cassio as almost realizing that a helter-skelter narrative is unwinding, but she panics at the thought and recedes. She seems the only survivor of conscience, but she’s not strong enough to embrace it.
The crux of Post5’s production lies in Desdemona’s death scene. The sex and violence become a setup, and like many audiences, we cling to the little hope that Othello’s dismissal of Desdemona’s maid is a moment of intimacy and love. We sit and watch anxiously as the former lovers break down from the false face of social contraptions to wrestle the demon at the root of their affections. We want either to leave our seats and go home, or to make plain the truth of all the mirages that lead up to the pillow-snuffing of Desdemona’s life. At one point Tell seems dead, and Desdemona cradles her head. The horror of not just killing a body, but killing a person and killing your wife! Tell’s leg shakes: it seems the last struggle of her muscles to hold life. She then comes back, and in this rotted atmosphere is the story of Othello: trust is not easy to surrender, but all the battles around it are less so.
Othello continues at Post5 Theatre through April 23. Ticket and schedule information here.