Why does Iago hate the Moor? That has always been the great question in Othello and one for which Shakespeare provides no definitive answer. Yes, he feels slighted when Othello promotes Cassio over him but is that enough reason to plot the general’s demise? Is it because he believes that Othello has slept with his wife, or because of the color of his skin? Or are Iago’s actions fueled by something deeper like self-loathing?
Shakespeare purposely doesn’t answer the question because he is more interested in prompting the audience to draw its own conclusions. The ambiguity is essential to the play although productions will at times highlight one line of reasoning over another in an attempt to give Iago clearer motivation. But that decision robs the play of its mystery and limits the unsettling horror of what happens on stage.
In the Porters of Hellsgate’s Prohibition Era production, the choice is made that Iago (Charles Pasternak) is seeking revenge because he thinks Othello (Matt Calloway) has had sex with his wife, Emilia (Hilary Schwartz). In a moment of anger, Iago removes the wedding ring from his finger and flings it into his glass, then drinks the alcohol, pulls the ring from his mouth and while holding it up to the audience and staring intently at it, makes the decision to ruin him. It’s a clever bit of business but the moment feels manipulative rather than authentic, as if someone in rehearsal said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
This is a production of unusual choices. Pasternak’s Iago is not a smooth villain. Rather, he is agitated to the point of hyperactivity and his rage bounces around the stage nearly overwhelming it at times. Those unfamiliar with Othello may find it challenging to follow the set-up because of the speed with which Pasternak attacks the early scenes. Part of the reason his frenetic pacing is so noticeable is that the rest of the characters are drawn so seriously. That includes Calloway as Othello, who takes a quiet, almost stoic approach to the Moor, and Eliza Kiss, as Desdemona. Theirs is not an affectionate romance, at least not on stage, and one gets the sense that they are playing the end of the story before we get there. Missing is the light and innocence in Desdemona which makes Othello’s treatment of her all the more heinous, as well as Othello’s natural ability to charm others. A vastly different life exists for the couple before Iago plants the seeds of doubt but we do not get to see it in this version of the play.
What you will see are scenes that make a decent person recoil in horror. Director Thomas Bigley stages the violence quite effectively and he makes good use of the theater’s playing areas but lack of lighting, particularly on the upper platform, audience entrance, and audience staircase is a hindrance. The 1920’s time period is characterized by stylish costumes and appealing gin joint music which includes the addition of an ironic epilogue set to “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.”
Shakespeare in LA
February 28 – March 28, 2015
The Porters of Hellsgate @ The Whitmore Theatre
11006 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91601
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, 7pm on Sunday, March 1st, and at 2pm on Sundays, March 8th, 15th, and 22nd. The production will run approximately two hours with one intermission. Click Here for tickets, $20 online; $25 at the door. All major credit cards accepted at the door. Reservation line: (818) 325-2055.