This isn’t the first time the Illyrian Players have taken on Shakespeare. In 2011, the company began its provocative theatrical conversation about gender and sex with Twelfth Night, and since then has given LA a BDSM version of The Taming of the Shrew and a gender reversed Macbeth. In addition to Shakespeare, they have produced a number of new plays; bold, edgy works that set them apart from other theatre companies, led by a vision that sees theatre as “a subversive art form with which to change the world.”
Director Carly D. Weckstein and company now turn their eyes to Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello, in an exploration of how betrayal, deceit, jealousy, and racism can deeply affect the psyche. The concept is modern and gritty; an expansive black and white world compressed into a small black box theatre with a single striking image on the back wall, conjured as if it were a ghost moon over the River Styx. Indeed, it does at times feel like the devil himself is watching over this tale, sending his masked demons – quite literally – to influence the characters from the shadowland.
Not that Iago needs much to press him forward. He begins the story already intent on destroying Othello for reasons not fully explained in Shakespeare’s text. Whether his anger stems from being passed over for a promotion, or comes from his racist views, or even if it is fueled by the rumor that Othello has slept with his own wife, he clearly intends to ruin the man. As such, this revenge play’s end is set firmly in our sights before it even begins.
Weckstein’s modern interpretation of the story engages the audience by focusing its efforts on strong character choices and allowing the actors to run with them. Some work; others, while interesting individually, do not always serve the overall structure of the play. Among the main characters you’ll find a youthful Othello (Zach Brown) rather than an “old black ram” as noted in the text, which very much changes the dynamic between he and his supposedly younger wife; a Desdemona (Katelyn Myer) with a tough edge of sarcasm; Michael Cassio (Gerard Marzilli) as a pretty idiot; the Duke (Maggie Blake) reinvented as a clown; and a Iago (Zach Hamra) who hates women.
Hamra’s calculating miscreant clearly moves toward his goal but the cast as a whole develops a pattern of throwing away words and racing through the verse as prose, making it difficult for the audience to hear and understand what is being said. That’s a tough call when you’re asking for a three hour and fifteen minute commitment to a play whose language is not familiar to most. (The performance I attended had an 8:00 pm curtain time and ended at 11:15 pm). Or, they swing to the other end of the spectrum and resort to yelling.
Two women took out a large bag of pretzels during Act I to pass the time and a young couple nearby spent a fair amount of time snuggling, kissing, and whispering to each other. To their credit, they were relatively quiet in both cases and not disruptive to me personally, although I wondered how the folks behind them were doing. If all of the actors had the vocal presence and command of the language that Angela Sauer (Emilia) had, it might have better involved them, and the rest of the audience, in the play in front of them.
Weckstein does make good use of the space available and her movement work with the masked chorus adds an eerie chill to the play’s underpinnings. Often the bedchamber scene is edited so that Emilia’s final lines are not delivered. Weckstein retains them for this production and creates an interesting juxtaposition of bodies, with Emilia assuming a more prominent place in the final stage picture than Othello. Though the scene that precedes it borders on melodrama, that final moment never fails to drive home the play’s message.
This is a company with a unique point of view, passionate in its response to the material, and willing to dive into the darkness to examine the less noble parts of a man — much like one William Shakespeare. We need voices like these onstage today but passion and point of view are only part of the equation. Trust the text. Honor what’s written. That’s really the key.
Shakespeare in LA
Oct. 31 – Nov. 22, 2014
Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 pm
Elephant Space at Theatre Asylum
6322 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets ($20) www.illyrianplayers.com