As February draws to a close, Mad Rogues presents an intimate, little studio staging of Shakespeare’s Othello performed without all the usual props and lighting and sound design and scenic design and costuming. Without any other distractions AT ALL, director Bryant Mason focusses the show on some remarkably stunning acting. A cast of actors approach the material from a very organic place that moves the tragedy briskly across the stage in a deeply satisfying production.
Izaiah A. Ramirez is a warm, articulate presence onstage. There is not menace or malice about him at all. There’s no sense of danger at all about the guy playing Othello in THIS production, which makes the tragedy of his sensitivity all the more crushing. The danger in playing Othello with this much sensitivity lies in the disconnect when the villain Iago awakens suspicion in him. Play Othello too much like a nice guy in the beginning and you run the risk of making the suspicious menace of Othello at the end of the play coming across like a COMPLETELY different character. Ramirez deftly manages an arc that manipulates the joy of emotional sensitivity at the beginning of the play and mutates it under the influence of Iago to the horror of emotional sensitivity at the end of the play. It’s a really refreshingly dynamic take on the character that Ramirez handles perfectly.
There’s great heroism in Caitlyn Nettesheim’s performance as Othello’s wife Desdemona. She’s bravely chosen new romantic love over her family’s old, conditional love. When a confidant and longtime friend of Othello’s stands disgraced, Nettesheim brings out the beauty of Desdemona’s selflessness. When her husband’s sensitivity turns to ill-temper, Nettesheim amplifies that selfless heroism in aiding a newfound friend in his quest to regain the trust of her husband. Nettesheim’s Desdemona is refreshingly inspiring.
Ken Miller's approach to the villain Iago is a pleasant alternative to the political villainy out of the White House and the Senate in the recent months. Contemporary U.S. politics is a theatre of villainy through childish bully brutality. As cleverly as he is written, Iago can sometimes make it to the stage with a menace that feels a bit childish around the edges. Miller plays to the intellect of the character without distraction. Politics for Miller’s Iago aren’t for the pleasure of personal gain...they’re a game. Miller’s Iago might be casually playing with people’s lives or he might be playing a multiplayer online game. All of the obstacles that line his path are problems to be solved for nothing more than the satisfaction of seeing his vision happen...which fits in impressively-well with what Shakespeare put on the page centuries ago.
Marcel Alston is given the unenviable task of playing Othello’s friend Cassio. Shakespeare gives the actor playing Cassio a hell of a lot of ground to cover in a relatively short span of time onstage. Alston breathes the complexity of a full personality around the edges of the dialogue. The script gives Cassio passion, duty, responsibility, irresponsibility, anger a few other things that all have relatively important roles to play in the tragedy. It's a weird scattershot for any actor to try to hit all of that cohesively without a whole lot of fluid time onstage. Alston cleverly strings it all together in a performance that speaks to a depth that might have come from an entirely different play focussed entirely on Cassio.
In my experience, Iago’s wife Emilia doesn’t traditionally make much of an emotional impact on the stage until the end of the play. Brittany F. Byrnes puts together a take on the character that is that much more engaging from the beginning to the end of the play. More than just an unwitting pawn for her husband, Byrnes brings the personal day-to-day life of the character a lived-in presence that makes her lack of suspicion for her husband that much more respectable. Byrnes gives Emilia her own life, so it's understandable that she wouldn't see her own husband's villainy even though it IS the center of all the action in the drama everyone in the audience is actively watching.
Roderigo is another character who often comes across as a witless pawn of Iago. Rather than going against the grain on this, Simon Earle has been allowed to play-up the character’s fragility as comic relief from the darkness lying in the heart of the rest of the play. And rather than amplifying that fragility in an exaggerated clown-like manner befitting the circus or the current Oval Office, Earle brilliantly plays the comedy of the character in impressively subtle sighs and sags that are all delivered with head-spinning precision. Earle is comic relief, but he’s playing it in a way that is carefully calculated not to overpower any other part of the drama.
Reva Fox lends respectable structure to the edges of the ensemble as Desdemona’s father Brabantio. Emmaline Friederichs is suitably seductive as Cassio’s love interest Bianca. Friederichs’ thoughtful sensuality adds a layer of depth to a production that is successful on a great many levels without the benefit of all the other non-acting stuff that can distract from a well-written script.
Mad Rogues’ production of Othello runs through Feb. 22nd, 24th, 27th, 28th and 29th at the Marcus Center or the Performing Arts’ Studio 4A on 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Mad Rogues online.