Theater

Review: Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'Othello' not in a purist's taste, but still world-class

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as the rest of the world, continues the celebration of Shakespeare’s 400-year legacy with acclaimed Royal Shakespeare’s director Jonathan Munby’s production of “Othello.”

Munby, as well as lead James Vincent Meredith, return to CST, together again after Munby’s 2013 production of “Julius Caesar.”

“Othello” unreputedly is one of Shakespeare’s finest intimate tragedies. The most universal of human emotions smolder throughout this production: pride, prejudice, envy and passion.
Set in contemporary Venice and Cyprus on a stark utilitarian military base (scenic designer Alexander Dodge), the masterpiece unfolds as jealous soldier Iago plots his downfall of Moor general Othello. Munby felt the original 1604 setting (a very turbulent time in English politics) of doublets and hose would “distance a contemporary audience,” particularly since he adamantly believes “the major themes of Othello resonate with us here and now.”

Munby stresses “Othello” is a “study of human psychology and the power of manipulation” and may be the greatest psychological thriller ever.

But setting “Othello” in current times makes the race issue almost non-existant. Yes, Iago hates the Moor Othello, but it’s because Othello passed over him and named Cassio as his lieutenant. Roderigo wants Othello out of the picture because he was in love with Desdemona, and Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, hates Othello because he stole his daughter (in Shakespeare’s time, daughters were material goods; our contemporary times, not so much.)

The Moor issue doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Othello also has the love and devotion of his troops.

And there’s another problem: the dialogue is still undiluted Shakespeare. After your ear is fine-tuned to the verse, rapidity and omnious music underscoring potent words, you wonder why the discussion still is of sailing ships while the sounds of jets, bombs and helicopters are thundering overhead (no wonder the Turks lost,) And finally, why does everyone fight and succumb to the knife while contemporary soldiers would have access to their guns?

James Vincent Meredith is Othello; he is majestically tall with perfect posture and carriage and an eloquent diction that furthers his handsome and tremendously expressive face. He is a heroically superb actor.

Of course, Iago has the best lines (“beware jealousy, the green eyed monster” and my favorite “men are men and oft times do forget it”) and the best character development. And Michael Milligan’s Iago is a devious, jealous, dishonest thesaurus of a villain.

I was awestruck by his manipulations and cruel descent into evil. Both Meredith and Milligan are exquisite, transformative performers.

Bethany Jillard, as Desdemona, portrays youth and devout loyalty to Othello, but she doesn’t convey the innocence and chasteness so necessary for the character. Nor does Jillard possess the ethereal gentle beauty often cast in productions. Jillard has  a certain edginess and tightness that detract from our sympathies for Desdemona. But is that not the fault of the director?

The supporting cast consistently delivers from the karaoke singing soldiers to Roderigo, the fooled. But there are some standouts: Luigi Sottile’s Cassio, David Lively’s Brabantio, Jessie Fisher’s Emilia and Melissa Carlson’s Duke of Venice (contemportary times, remember?). They are all strong and admirable in their portrayals. Fisher’s confronting Othello and Iago in that infamous final scene is particularly redeeming. The poetic justice and ironies are rich and engrossing.

A contemporary performance may not be to a purist’s taste, but this "Othello" does indeed work. It is a world-class production worth attendance. So, welcome back Mr. Munby, and thank you.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Currently serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.

“OTHELLO”

WHEN: Through April 10

WHERE: Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater,
Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago

COST & INFO: Tickets start at $48 at www.chicagoshakes.com or 312-595-5600. For information and showtimes, visit www.chicagoshakes.com.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as the rest of the world, continues the celebration of Shakespeare’s 400-year legacy with acclaimed Royal Shakespeare’s director Jonathan Munby’s production of “Othello.”

Munby, as well as lead James Vincent Meredith, return to CST, together again after Munby’s 2013 production of “Julius Caesar.”

“Othello” unreputedly is one of Shakespeare’s finest intimate tragedies. The most universal of human emotions smolder throughout this production: pride, prejudice, envy and passion.
Set in contemporary Venice and Cyprus on a stark utilitarian military base (scenic designer Alexander Dodge), the masterpiece unfolds as jealous soldier Iago plots his downfall of Moor general Othello. Munby felt the original 1604 setting (a very turbulent time in English politics) of doublets and hose would “distance a contemporary audience,” particularly since he adamantly believes “the major themes of Othello resonate with us here and now.”

Munby stresses “Othello” is a “study of human psychology and the power of manipulation” and may be the greatest psychological thriller ever.

But setting “Othello” in current times makes the race issue almost non-existant. Yes, Iago hates the Moor Othello, but it’s because Othello passed over him and named Cassio as his lieutenant. Roderigo wants Othello out of the picture because he was in love with Desdemona, and Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, hates Othello because he stole his daughter (in Shakespeare’s time, daughters were material goods; our contemporary times, not so much.)

The Moor issue doesn’t really seem to be an issue. Othello also has the love and devotion of his troops.

And there’s another problem: the dialogue is still undiluted Shakespeare. After your ear is fine-tuned to the verse, rapidity and omnious music underscoring potent words, you wonder why the discussion still is of sailing ships while the sounds of jets, bombs and helicopters are thundering overhead (no wonder the Turks lost,) And finally, why does everyone fight and succumb to the knife while contemporary soldiers would have access to their guns?

James Vincent Meredith is Othello; he is majestically tall with perfect posture and carriage and an eloquent diction that furthers his handsome and tremendously expressive face. He is a heroically superb actor.

Of course, Iago has the best lines (“beware jealousy, the green eyed monster” and my favorite “men are men and oft times do forget it”) and the best character development. And Michael Milligan’s Iago is a devious, jealous, dishonest thesaurus of a villain.

I was awestruck by his manipulations and cruel descent into evil. Both Meredith and Milligan are exquisite, transformative performers.

Bethany Jillard, as Desdemona, portrays youth and devout loyalty to Othello, but she doesn’t convey the innocence and chasteness so necessary for the character. Nor does Jillard possess the ethereal gentle beauty often cast in productions. Jillard has  a certain edginess and tightness that detract from our sympathies for Desdemona. But is that not the fault of the director?

The supporting cast consistently delivers from the karaoke singing soldiers to Roderigo, the fooled. But there are some standouts: Luigi Sottile’s Cassio, David Lively’s Brabantio, Jessie Fisher’s Emilia and Melissa Carlson’s Duke of Venice (contemportary times, remember?). They are all strong and admirable in their portrayals. Fisher’s confronting Othello and Iago in that infamous final scene is particularly redeeming. The poetic justice and ironies are rich and engrossing.

A contemporary performance may not be to a purist’s taste, but this "Othello" does indeed work. It is a world-class production worth attendance. So, welcome back Mr. Munby, and thank you.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is a working actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Currently serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.

“OTHELLO”

WHEN: Through April 10

WHERE: Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater,
Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago

COST & INFO: Tickets start at $48 at www.chicagoshakes.com or 312-595-5600. For information and showtimes, visit www.chicagoshakes.com.

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