Cincinnati Shakespeare’s “Othello”

Saturday I flew to Cincinnati to see the Cincinnati Shakespeare production of Othello.

I should begin by saying firstly, that I am not a theatre critic by trade, so this shouldn’t be read as a review per se, but more a writeup of my personal and very subjective experience. I should also say, in the interest of full disclosure, that two of my friends were in this show, so feel free to anticipate whatever bias you please. Lastly, I should warn that there will be spoilers about several novel elements of the staging that you should not read if you’re planning to see the show.

It would be hard to imagine an Othello with which I would have been more pleased. Overall the production was tight and exciting, with perfect pacing. The roughly two and a half hour show flew by with me on the edge of my seat for most of that time.

I may be in the minority when I say that I think Othello is best staged in a modern context. So many important elements of the play will only resonant with a 21st century audience if it is packaged in the trappings of its own time. Othello is a military play, and for a number of reasons it is easy for a production to fail to keep that military milieu in the forefront of an audience’s mind, not the least of which is the lack of any actual battles. Other military plays — Coriolanus, Henry V, &c — have an easier time of it, given that they include large-scale battles in the action. With the lucky drowning of the Turkish fleet, we never get proof of the famed general’s military prowess, the reason for his success in Venice. Without any actual battles, it can be easy for an audience to forget the martial setting of the play if it isn’t dressed in the recognizable uniforms and customs of the 20th/21st centuries.

Cincy Shakes’ production never lets us forget that Othello is a military commander — he is, however, demoted to the rank of colonel for an extra dose of 21st century military realism. The show opens with Othello and his soldiers on patrol in a vaguely middle-eastern setting, killing a female insurgent crouching on a bed with a rifle. It sets the tone for the military setting and adds a powerful thematic bookend for those who know how the play will end.

Each Shakespeare play has a few specific notes that, for me personally, define the characters and the action. When those lines/scenes are cut, or when they’re executed without the proper weight, the play comes loose like an unbalanced lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. When Brabantio and his followers track down Othello shortly after the latter’s marriage to Brabantio’s daughter Desdemona, a brawl nearly breaks out, and Othello stops everyone in their tracks with a single line: “keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” Because there are no battles in Othello, this is the best opportunity to establish early in the play that Othello has a martial presence, the ability to command and control hostile, trigger-happy soldiers in the heat of the moment. If that moment falls flat, then it becomes unrealistic for me to imagine that Othello is so necessary to the success of the Venetian military that the senate would have no choice but to defend him, a black man marrying a rich Venetian’s daughter against his will.

All of that to say that the scene was played perfectly, with a level of tension and gravity that cemented Othello as the giant he needs to be. Othello talks down the tense crew of soldiers and armed guards with that poetic line, dropped into the gathering like a stun grenade. William Watkins was the Othello that I need, a commander-poet. I am a committed pacifist, but Watkins is the kind of general — or colonel — that I would storm a battlement beside.

This was the first show I’ve seen in the Otto M. Budig Theater, which is a phenomenal space, intimate, versatile with amazing acoustics. The production made use of the entire space in interesting ways, with a retractable bed under the stage, effective use of projections, and actors using aisles and balconies to fill out all the corners with action.

In a production this good, it is equally hard to pick out the highlights as it is to find faults. But if I were forced to name the performances that stood out to me, they would be Desdemona, played by Courtney Lucien, and Iago, played by Nicholas Rose.

Desdemona is an amazing character that is often underrated through juxtaposition with the more practical, cynical Emilia. As much as I am loath to quote The Smiths, Desdemona is the embodiment of their famous lyric “it takes strength to be gentle and kind.” In a jaded, ironic world, we can see Desdemona’s sincerity as naive, and her strength as foolhardiness. As played by Lucien, we see Desdemona not as the helpless damsel in distress caricature, but as bold and fundamentally decent, two things that lead to her destruction by the jealousy of others. Othello kills Desdemona out of jealousy because of her boldness. We assassinate her character because her decency inspires our own jealousy. She enjoys a level of freedom of conscience that we can’t know because we are too selfish, too petty, too aware of our own ugliness.

What really set Rose’s Iago apart was his interaction with Lucien’s Desdemona. The standard remorseless Iago, who vacillates on stage between gleeful thrill-killer and hollow psychopath, misses a quirk highlighted by AC Bradley, one of — if not the most — brilliant and influential Shakespeare scholar in history. In his Shakespearean Tragedy, Bradley makes the point that the only person in the play that Iago doesn’t seem to take any true pleasure in hurting is Desdemona. It might be an overstatement to say that Iago has a genuine affection for Desdemona, but he certainly has more pity for her than he does for anyone else in Venice or Cyprus. Rose’s Iago is the most human I’ve ever seen, and when Desdemona asks for Iago’s help understanding Othello’s uncharacteristically jealous behavior, I broke down in my seat, head in my hands crying as Desdemona drapes herself over Iago’s shoulders crying. Rather than a moment of mockery, Iago is legitimately undone by Desdemona’s plight, and when he assures her that “all will be well,” Rose twists the knife in our chests by giving everyone in the audience — even those of us who know the play very well — a false hope that perhaps the wheels set in motion can be stopped. When Lucien exits the stage, Rose sits down at her dressing table and the silent regret on his face brings the only glimpse of light in that last act, ruined by the intrusion of the gull Roderigo whose threats to expose Iago force him to resume his previous schemes.

That entire sequence of interactions, from Iago and Desdemona, to Iago alone, to Iago and Roderigo, is the kind of psychological depth in performance that does justice to Shakespeare’s words, and gives a modern audience of the kind of suspense and uncertainty that a 17th century audience would’ve felt watching the play for the first time. Combined with what I’ve already said about the contemporary staging, this production could serve as a masterclass in effective Shakespearean theatre.

It would be impossible to talk about this play without talking about its final minutes, and I will reiterate my earlier warning that there will be spoilers that you should avoid if you’re in Cincinnati and planning to see the show.

It will come as no surprise even to those unfamiliar to the play that both Othello and Desdemona end up dead at the end; it is a Shakespeare tragedy after all. How those deaths are staged, however, bears scrutiny, for both innovation and emotional impact.

Othello smothers Desdemona to death in her bed. In every production I’ve ever seen, this moment is mercifully represented unrealistically. A quiet 15 seconds of gentle pressure with a frilly throw pillow is usually enough to extinguish the delicate flower that is Desdemona. No such luck here. Without a stopwatch, I couldn’t guess how long Desdemona’s death took in the show, but I’d be very surprised if it clocked in under two full minutes of full-strength thrashing and muffled screaming from Lucien as Watkins held the pillow over her face with his forearms. It was undoubtedly the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever watched on stage. I had to take a break halfway through to look at the floor because I was so horrified and pained by the scene. But I felt guilty, toward Desdemona and Othello, and toward the actors themselves. What must have been an incredibly difficult and painful moment to stage deserved my undivided attention, even if it was agonizing to give it. All forms of stage combat should be safe for the actors while giving the audience the impression that the characters are in real physical danger. A modern audience is spoiled by cinematic special effects and so our suspension of disbelief w/r/t staged sword fights is often an amused patience. I personally have never watched Hamlet and been concerned for the safety of the actor played Laertes. Reflecting on the staging of Desdemona’s death, I realize that I am unaware how that scene could have been staged without putting Lucien in actual physical danger. I don’t mean to imply that she was in danger, simply that the staging of it was so convincing, that even as a person who works in theatre it’s hard for me to imagine how it was done without intense physical stress on the actor under that pillow.

In contrast to Desdemona’s painfully quiet and drawn out death, Othello’s death comes in a shocking flash. Rather than the traditional suicide by stabbing himself with a hidden dagger, this production stages a painfully relevant “suicide by cop,” in which Othello delivers his final monologue and then takes advantage of the tension in a room full of armed soldiers by reaching for a — non-existent — gun at his hip and is shot by one of his own men.

I keep trying to say something about this final moment, something meaningful or something insightful. In 2018, my emotional understanding of a scene like this is manifold. I watched Watkins drop after the shot was fired, and Cassio’s line “this did I fear, but thought he had no weapon” felt like a sucker punch to my gut. I felt sick and angry. I had a momentary flash of every black man’s name that became a hashtag in the last six years. Given how many rehearsals I’ve watched of painful and tragic moments in Shakespeare, I wondered as a white person, how it would feel to work on a show with a black colleague and to be asked to stage the final moments of that painful play in that particular way. I couldn’t even begin to wonder what it would feel like for the black actor himself. Usually we need to be made uncomfortable to learn, to open our minds, to make any meaningful progress on an issue. We need to push ourselves, step outside of our comfort zone. But I wondered if there might be a point where pain stops being useful and becomes paralytic. If that tipping point exists, the ending of this play steps right up to that precipice.

It would be difficult to overstate my praise for this show. I would say that I hope you get a chance to see it, but anyone who is in a position to actually see the show should not be reading this, and so what I will say is that I hope you someday see an Othello this good.