Chaos is come again.….
Chaos “comes again” with the heat of a raging forest fire and tension of a python squeezing prey with steel-taut coils in Second Thought Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello. It runs through August 8 in Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys campus. The play begins with pre-tsunami calm as actors in character stroll through the house mixing with patrons, sit alone praying or slouch brooding against back walls framing a tiered, industrial bare in-the-round set. Without warning, the audience finds itself hurtled into the heart of the show’s maelstrom of intrigue and betrayal. Mayhem and murder creep in on virile lions’ paws, ripping into every character with savage cunning. Director Joel Ferrell seizes upon one of Shakespeare’s cruelest, most destructive, most tragic plays and whips it into a rock music-punctuated crescendo of sorrow, deception and death. A brilliant flash of strategic, vengeful catharsis concludes the performance. No character remains un-bloodied; surely, no audience member departs unshaken.
Meet the Moor, Othello: Venerable Tyrees Allen presents first as a noble, dignified, confident, authoritative hero and leader (so huge banners unfurled on opposite sides of the playing space attest). He’s a general long accustomed to leading without challenge, Sober and commanding, he appears unassailable. He trusts his officers without question. Pity, that. His cascading disintegration before your eyes is the stuff to make nightmares of. Simply put, Allen owns the role.
Meet villain Iago, Othello’s ensign: Tall, lean marathon runner fit, Alex Organ emerges as a true monster across the first half of the play, but only in the audience’s eyes. When Othello summons him, this Iago brims over with self-effacing accommodation and obsequious camaraderie. All a mask of deadly deception. He ensnares the audience into collusive conceit with clenched-teeth half snarls, passionately articulating seething rage and psychopathic desire for revenge against the unsuspecting Othello. All the while, cool, calm and decorous in outward demeanor. As master manipulator, Organ’s Iago ascends in predatory slow burn until his nefarious goals explode with horror. An exquisite but grotesque portrayal. Take your eyes off him, I dare you. Don’t turn your back.
Cassio, Othello’s Lieutenant: Shakespeare seems to have it in for people of noble intention in this play. If ever there were an undeserving victim, it’s Cassio, newly appointed Othello’s as right hand man, and Platonic friend to Desdemona, Othello’s bride. In contrast to Organ’s bleak dissembling intrigue and spiteful aura, Blake McNamara embodies a wholesome space of pure light. Also tall but fair-headed and uncomplicated in gesture or word, he operates from good intentions, with no guile or “agenda”. Like Othello, he is too “good” to see Iago’s machinations. Victim of a smaller tragedy within the play, McNamara’s Cassio suffers with acceptance and open sorrow when his drunken brawl, set up on by Iago, gets him demoted from Othello’s command. A quiet actor, McNamara elicits genuine sympathy for his principled character.
Desdemona, Othello’s wife: Another undeserving victim of Iago’s hateful machination, Desdemona suffers tragically when accused of infidelity with Cassio. I have always felt this character to be on the stupid side. Joel Ferrell directs Second Thought newcomer Morgan Garrett in a surprisingly reflective, vibrant, transcendent interpretation. No weak victim, this Desdemona. As a woman of intense religious faith, she never wavers in her devotion to God or husband, no matter how the latter treats her. She is a stronger character, ultimately than her “commanding” husband. Shakespeare has her sing “ Willow, Willow Song” as her doom approaches. “Sing all a green willow must be my garland. Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve….” For some reason, Director Ferrell switches it to the 1779 English folk hymn “Amazing Grace”. Although recognizable and powerful in its religious sentiment, it does not reinforce Desdemona’s circumstance and acceptance of the horror she faces with the same potent sadness. (My only quibble with the production)
Emilia, Iago’s wife: A secondary character in terms of line count, Emilia often gets directed as a shrill marital annoyance badgering Iago. A foil. She calls briefly for justice in a second act speech (sometimes cut as “superfluous”) right before his annoyance turns to murder. Director Ferrell guides seasoned Second Thought actor Jenny Ledel into a full-voiced, commanding performance. An equal on any stage to the charismatic Alex Organ, Ledel exudes a forceful presence that elevates the battles waged between Emilia and Iago. Almost a proto-feminist character in this production, Emilia stands firm for justice, honor and protecting the rights of the innocent like no other character in the play. She is the production’s true hero, while not its protagonist. Ledel’s crisp, intelligent facility with Shakespearean language is a joy to hear, as occasionally the rock-based score drowns out other actors not quite as professionally skilled.
Written somewhere between 1601 and 1604, over 410 years ago, Othello stands in bold testimony to the universal genius of William Shakespeare. Second Thought Theatre’s contemporary production rocks the Bard, way hard. A tragedy, a thriller, a love story gone awry, a violent tale of pure evil played at fever pitch – forget cable TV and come sit shivering in Second Thought Theatre’s seats like I did, and love every tortured, horrifying minute of this live staged production.