‘Othello’ Powerful but Aesthetically Confused

A diabolical yet strikingly charming smile appears on Iago’s (Phil M. Gillen ’13) face as he initiates his first wicked twist in the plot of one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedies: “Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs,” he says.

The mise-en-scène of the Hyperion Shakespeare Company’s production of “Othello,” playing in Farkas Hall—the recently renamed New College Theatre—until November 6, turns out to be all about isolating and amplifying those words, expressions, and moments that define individuals and alter the course of lives. With an unobstrusive technical approach that places the emphasis on a traditional reading of the Bard’s text, director Nathan O. Hilgartner ’14’s “Othello” relies on powerful if sometimes one-dimensional acting to realize the tragedy’s layers of deceit. However, a halfhearted attempt to modernize the production in parallel with minimalist staging distracts more than it contributes to the final product.

The production draws a lot of its dramatic force from the barren set design of Madelynne A. Hays ’13: against a white backdrop and floor, the set consists of five white modular platforms of varying sizes that are rearranged into various configurations over the course of the play to reflect the characteristics of discrete spaces. The choices of costume designer Janet J. Eom ’14 realize the director’s monochromatic vision for the tragedy, as the entire cast of characters are dressed in blazing whites—except for Othello, who wears black from head to toe.

Cast as an outsider from the very beginning, Othello’s dress not only foreshadows his ominous fate, but also designates him as the focal point of the tragedy about to unfold. Color emerges through the use of spotlights and varying atmospheric hues by lighting designer Lora D. Stoianova ’13, additions which remove the necessity for screen panels to create split-scenes. This, in turn, reinforces the dramatic effect of the juxtaposition of events in those divided scenes.

In the title role, Spencer J. Horne ’14 excels at maintaining high energy and composure throughout the play to fuel Othello’s long-winded declarations of anger and exasperation. However, his delivery often lacks nuance as he leads Othello to stylistically static fits of rage. On the other hand, Gillen’s delightfully clear articulation fits well with his overpowering presence on stage. Lit with green-tinted light to emphasize the rottenness of his words, Gillen scintillates in the role of Iago during his soliloquies.

Like Horne’s Othello, however, Gillen’s Iago is less a character than a caricature and leaves the audience wondering whether a real person can be this dark at heart. Still, Gillen manages to charm and disgust in turn, affecting a childlike innocence and incarnating the devil with remarkable integrity of character.

Rachel V. Byrd ’13’s soft-spoken Desdemona deserves praise for her lightness and vulnerability, but she seems not to relish each word as much as other leads do, which diminishes the effect of her pleas to Othello and sometimes reduces her character to a nuisance. In contrast, her maid Emilia (Emily B. Hyman ’13) exhibits a perfect balance of casual mannerisms with classic tragic gestures. She embodies Hilgartner’s ideal for the play on her own—not too high-flown and moralizing, yet acting on a recognizable sense of dignity.

Although much of the production is geared towards modernizing “Othello”—most notably the use of cell phones and pistols—certain flaws tarnish the uniformity of the play. One cannot help but be surprised at seeing a woman wearing a contemporary-looking get-up including tight dress, pearls, and heels get help from her servant to undress. Desdemona’s handkerchief feels similarly out of place given the obsolescence of personal handkerchiefs today, especially when the one in question features garish strawberry prints.

These two examples highlight a greater issue: Hilgartner and his technical staff seem intent on giving “Othello” a contemporary flavor, but the incomplete and jarring nature of their changes demonstrate a lack of ambition in the adaptation. Either a more complete modernization or a retreat towards the more minimal approach the staging suggests might have been more fulfilling. Nevertheless, Hilgartner’s instructions are well received by an astute cast, which makes the most of his vision. As a result, despite its shortcomings, Shakespeare’s tale of malignant distrust and unbridled deceit comes alive in Farkas Hall.