The cast puts a modern spin on Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’

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March 28, 2008

4:22 AM

If, at 7:30 tonight, you happen to be in the UC Commonwealth Auditorium, you will stumble upon an animated group of characters, dressed in completely modern clothing but speaking 15th Century vernacular. One of them, sporting dark hair and a beard, occasionally speaks in Arabic.

p. At 8:30 p.m. last Monday, the cast of “Othello” gathered in the Commonwealth for a dress rehearsal. Desdemona (Mollie Marie Fitzhugh ’10) lounged across a bed with a curtain draped across her. The set was minimal, with only a few pieces of furniture — the bed had served as a desk in a previous scene. The men were fully clad in modern naval uniforms, the women in modern dresses. This was part of the director’s approach to the production: setting a classic play in the modern era.

p. As rehearsal began, Iago (Zan Gillies ’09), Cassio (Keegan Cassidy ’10) and Roderigo (Alex Kyrios ’09) did a preliminary run of the fight scene. The rest of the cast let their eyes wander toward the stage as the fighters tumbled across the floor. The scene ended as Cassio was fatally wounded, and rehearsal went on. Desdemona dozed on the couch while Othello (Rolfe Shiflett ’08) delivered a striking monologue as she slept. In spite of a few hiccups in memorization and the stragglers shuffling around the stage, his speech was effective — the shuffling died away as everyone watched.

p. Shakespeare in the Dark is an entirely student-run organization that puts on three plays a year. Anyone can try out, but the ones who do usually have something in common: an obvious love for everything Shakespeare.

p. The director of “Othello,” Mike Mott ’08, brought his own exceptional love for Bill to the production. After taking a number of Shakespeare classes and directing 15 plays, he has an eye for the not-so-obvious in Shakespearean plays.

p. “I like to find what’s true about them,” Mott said. “There’s a lot [about the play] that’s straightforward. I was trying to find what makes ‘Othello’ interesting.”

p. What made this production particularly interesting was the striking contrast between the modern garb was next to the Shakespearian speech. The use of modern-day naval uniforms were part of Mott’s idea to make Othello Muslim and set the play in our terrorist-terrified nation during the 21st Century.

p. At times, the modern aspect of the production required changing certain lines to make the play’s language more appropriate. At one point during the play, Mott changed the word “unpin” to “unzip” in order to make the language correspond with the costumes. It’s a minor change, but it makes you wonder where Mott gets the license to make any changes at all.

p. “After [taking] 36 credits worth of Shakespeare, I’ve given up on the one-true-text theory, and a little bit of that is liberating, because it allows me to change things here or there,” he said.
Certain lines in the play, which involve black rams tipping white ewes, were just too famous to be changed, even though this Othello is Arabic and not black.

p. “We’re using ‘black’ to refer to character as opposed to skin color,” Mott said.

p. Putting a modern spin on such a delicate issue as race or religion could stir controversy, but that had no effect on how Shiflett, an English and theater major, will perform the role of Othello.

p. “I think [the play] is more about Othello’s personal tragedy than it is about anything else,” Shiflett said. “[But] I’m really not concerned about [controversy] at all. I’m not going to let heterogeneous ideologies of convenience ruin the absolute joy I get from playing this part.”

p. As a literary and cultural studies major, Gilles is also more focused on the human qualities of his character (Iago) than on any stereotypes.

p. “Having Othello be Muslim instead of black really doesn’t change much for me,” Gilles said. “[Iago] gives various and sundry reasons for hating Othello, but he never once says that it’s because of the color of his skin.”

p. Gillies also emphasized that the club has no political agenda.
“We’re not going for any grand political statement with this show, nor are we trying to apply some far-fetched abstract concept to try to shake up Shakespeare. The characters are immortal no matter what setting they’re put in, and they’re the important part.”
Though Mott shared Gilles’ sentiments, he was aware of the possibility of controversy.

p. “We want to avoid being offensive just for the sake of being offensive, [but] if there’s no controversy, that’s disappointing. People should discuss it.”

p. Needless to say, the play was different from what anyone might expect from a College production of “Othello.” And if you’ve seen a few Shakespeare in the Dark productions and recognized the familiar faces, you’ll find some different actors this time around.

p. “This year, we have a handful of theater majors in addition to the old tried-and-true Shakespeare in the Dark people,” Mott said.
According to him, the professional attitude of the theater majors is more laid-back than that of the club.

p. Shiflett commented on the difficulty of getting people together for rehearsals, but expressed positive sentiments about the club as a whole.

p. Gillies made a trailer for the play which can be viewed on YouTube at http://youtube.com/watch?v=5mjcNtUbmFU. See “Othello” Friday March 28th at 7:30 p.m., Saturday the 29th at 1 p.m., or Sunday the 30th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $4.

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