On Stage: Othello

by Chuck Conconi

Othello is a prideful general in Shakespeare Theater’s production of the Bard’s longest play. 

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Ryman Sneed as Desdemona and Faran Tahir as Othello in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Othello, directed by Ron Daniels (Photo by Scott Suchman)

There is an unexplainable rational as to why carefully protected young women are attracted to bad boys. And William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” a prideful general, of a Moorish background that is unacceptable to her family, is the ultimate bad boy; and tragically he is the man Desdemona desires.

This Othello (Faran Tahir) in the Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Othello,” is a man of esteemed military standing. He does possess a thin veneer of love and tenderness for Desdemona (Ryan Sneed), a fragile woman of her time and the daughter of a prominent Venetian senator. She, however, secretly marries the general, who is not acceptable to her class. But the marriage has been consummated and there is nothing her unhappy father can do.

There is a racist element to this dark play. Othello is a North African and in the director Ron Daniels selection of Tahir, a Pakistani, succeeds in making this character more relevant. Othello most often is portrayed a black man, a conceit that even a legendary performer as Laurence Olivier portrayed in a heavily, made up black face. Daniels has replaced the obvious prejudice of a frail white woman with a black man with a more current prejudice of a frail Christian woman with a swarthy Muslim.

“Othello” is not an easy play to watch. It is one of Shakespeare’s longest play, running some three hours, and is further slowed down by less interaction and slowly paced dialogue. It isn’t clear what Daniels is attempting in the Shakespeare Theater production, which at times is ponderous.

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Faran Tahir as Othello and Jonno Roberts as Iago in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Othello, directed by Ron Daniels (Photo by Scott Suchman)

“Othello” is about betrayal and Shakespeare seems to have been writing a lover’s tragedy. Sneed is properly a feckless Desdemona who in the sincerity of her love for her husband is an easy foil for the smarmy Iago (Junno Roberts). “Othello” is essentially Iago’s play. Shakespeare has given him more lines than his general and created a character who cleverly knows how to see past Othello’s military authority to his vulnerable insecurity as a husband. His Iago, while clearly villainess, is not as obviously sinister as it could be.

Iago’s success in destroying his superior, a man he hates, cleverly uses a lost handkerchief and spurious accusations. Emily Rebholz has dressed Othello and his military staff in khaki uniforms with Sam Brown belts and knee high polished boots. The first impression was this is just another Shakespeare production dressed in military uniforms in an attempt to be different. But, Othello is a great general and the uniforms work. In the final scenes he is dressed in sweeping, more traditional Arab robes.

Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design is a minimalist metal platform and a backdrop of large, multi-bladed industrial fans. It emphasizes the grim backdrop of a story that will not end well. In the final scenes, a large colorful cloth with the winged lion of Venice helps with the mood of the victory Othello has fought for Venice in defeating the Turks and makes his mistrust of Desdemona and his accompanying uncontrollable rage over suspicions that she has been unfaithful with his second in command, Cassio (Patrick Vaill.)

The two strongest performances were Emila (Merritt Janson), the unfortunate wife of Iago who he manipulates into giving him Desdemona’s lost handkerchief to use in implicating her in a nonexistent relationship with Cassio. The other is a brief role of Bianca, (Natascia Diaz) a courtesan companion of Cassio. Both performances have a liveliness and energy that is lacking throughout the play.

The tragedy of “Othello” is the general’s, too easily accepted distrust of the innocent Desdemona, a woman attracted to a man who wasn’t smart enough to control his emotions to believe that she could love and be faithful.


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