Story: Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army, has inadvertently angered his trusted ensign Iago by promoting another officer, Cassio, to be his lieutenant after a triumphant campaign. Seeking revenge, Iago takes advantage of the wounded feelings of the Venetian Roderigo, who is in love with the woman, Desdemona, who has proclaimed her love for Othello.
Iago reveals Desdemona’s intention to wed the Moor to her father Brabantio, a Venetian senator, who is enraged at the news of his daughter marrying a black man. When the Venetian courts, however, rule that Desdemona and Othello are legally married, Brabantio warns Othello that his daughter cannot be trusted.
Iago then sets his sights on convincing Othello that Cassio and Desdemona are lovers. He requests that his wife Emilia, servant to Desdemona, obtain a handkerchief, a special gift from Othello to Desdemona, and then give it to Iago. When Desdemona accidentally loses the memento, Emilia hands it over to Iago, who places it in Cassio’s quarters.
Preying on the increasing suspicions of Othello and the anger of Roderigo, Iago furthers his plan to have Cassio murdered and Othello torn apart by jealousy, all while professing to be Othello’s “honest” and trusted confidante. When the Moor learns that Cassio has given Desdemona’s handkerchief to the lieutenant’s lover Bianca, he determines to kill Desdemona in the grief and anger fueled by his jealousy, all under Iago’s calculated manipulations.
Highlights: St. Louis Shakespeare presents its latest version of Shakespeare’s tragedy in a production highlighted by Reginald Pierre’s smart interpretation of the title role.
Other Info: The company is now performing in its new home at Tower Grove Baptist Church. The ample space accommodates Jared Korte’s modest scenic design, which features a softly painted, Impressionistic-style backdrop of the Venetian skyline, with several crates in front used to set the stage for various scenes. Brendan Schmidt’s lighting design marks the distinction between day and night scenes effectively throughout.
Director Patrice Foster sets the story in “today’s Venice and Cyprus,” which makes some sense in racial terms but none in political reality, as Venice today is an Italian city and not a geographic power. This does allow, however, costume designer Kayla Lindsay to dress the characters in modern attire, whether civilian or military, and not bother with pesky Elizabethan wardrobes.
Foster’s direction utilizes aisles in the church as well as entrances on either side of the stage. Her rendition is divided into two acts, satisfactorily paced as it suitably contrasts scenes of doubt and deceit with a lively wedding reception filled with music, dance and camaraderie.
Pierre brings a suave power to the role of the accomplished general, confident in love as well as on the battle field. He’s solid in his scenes with Bridgette Bassa, who is a savvy and sophisticated Desdemona, while also capitulating to his base fear of another man usurping his bride. Othello tragically believes that Iago is above reproach, which Pierre shows leads to disastrous results.
Cynthia Pohlson resorts too often to over-the-top, maniacal laughter to indicate Iago’s core venality, when a more calculated and cold interpretation might seem more realistic. Phil Leveling convincingly conveys Cassio’s allegiance to Othello as well as his leadership stature among the general’s subordinates.
Hillary Gokenbach depicts the love of Emilia for her duplicitous husband, delivering the production’s finest moment when Emilia realizes what Iago has done. Gokenbach powerfully conveys Emilia’s defense of Desdemona’s virtue and her uncompromising defiance of Iago once she learns of the murder.
There’s fine work by Jesse Munoz as the easily swayed Roderigo and Lisa Hinrichs as Cassio’s lover Bianca. The hard-working cast also includes Brad Kinzel as Brabantio, Mike Stephens as the Duke of Venice, Will Pendergast, Victor Mendez and CeCe Day.
Ted Drury’s sound design is one of the shining highlights of the performance, filled with Middle Eastern or Arabian-style music to underscore Othello’s Moorish heritage, and Todd Gillenardo’s fight choreography adds a look of authenticity. Amanda Handle provides the accompanying props, including that most telling, embroidered handkerchief.
The company’s news release states that “Othello is not just a play about race...This play takes what we think we know and turns it on its head. It explores identity, love, loss and insecurity. These themes are universal and timeless.”
No doubt. Still, moving the locale to modern times seems more problematic than persuasive.
Company: St. Louis Shakespeare
Venue: Tower Grove Baptist Church, 4257 Magnolia Avenue
Dates: April 11,12, 13
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Shakespeare