While “contemporary” Shakespeare productions are a dime a dozen and frequently pretty bad, Kentucky Shakespeare’s current “Othello: The Moor of Venice” offers far more than a change in costume or a slightly different set of pronunciations.
By focusing on a setting that mirrors the conditions of those found by American soldiers in the Middle East, as well as examining updated gender dynamics and going against tradition with the age of a key character, director Matt Wallace delivers one of the most conceptually successful “updates” of Shakespeare I’ve seen.
This “Othello” adds layers to the story without sacrificing any of the script’s original strength or intent. The verisimilitude of the soldiers lives’ is key to that success. Presumably we have Matthew Bone and Fred Johnson to thank, members of the company’s Shakespeare with Veterans program who served as this production’s military advisers.
This production has room for thought-provoking investigation of the familiar racial themes, but even more arresting is Wallace’s deep dive into the half of “Othello” that is too often mishandled or overlooked all together. This is a play about gender dynamics, imbalance of power and partner abuse.
At the top of the play, Venice — America’s stand in — is at full martial power, sending troops all over the Mediterranean to defend its allies from the Turks.
The contemporary military togs, modern suits and a few cellphones sell the new setting quickly.
We see Wallace’s concept begin to take hold when Abigail Maupin arrives on stage as The Duke of Venice. Maupin’s Duke is wearing a power suit and tossing orders with firm authority, a vision perhaps of what we’d have with a woman in the White House — someone firm, fair and efficient, with no time to suffer fools.
But let’s pause a second in our examination of the re-imagined Duke. Kentucky Shakespeare tends to gender flip some of the Bard’s major roles. Women make up roughly half of the company’s audience and half of the actors working in America. They should make up half of the Hamlets, Prosperos and Lears.
Such gender flipping doesn’t require a concept or an update to work, but here in “Othello” it serves to forward Wallace’s deft re-evaluation of the play.
Moments after Maupin’s Duke shows up, Hallie Dizdarevic’s Desdemona steps on stage, arrayed in soft, feminine clothing. She’s the only woman in this play content with her socially normative gender role.
Maupin’s Duke is kicking ass and taking names in a man’s world, and later on we when we meet the other female characters, Wallace has them portrayed as active duty military, not camp women.
Costume Designer Donna Lawrence-Downs deserves a big shout-out for making these ideas work on a visual level that is sharp and distinctive, but not glaring or too on the nose.
Desdemona embodies the obsequious ultrafeminine “ideal” in way that is endearing instead of grating. She’s sweet and gentle, not because it’s required of her by Veronese norms, but because that’s her true nature. She nails this from pretty much her first moment on stage, when she sweetly refutes her father and states her loyalty to Othello.
Wallace knows for us to care about Desdemona’s death we have to like Desdemona. That death, choreographed by fight director Eric Frantz, is uncomfortable, long and ugly.
Ernaisja Curry’s Bianca meets a happier end. Curry’s Bianca is a badass, not afraid to tell a man what she wants, and she can drink and fight just as hard as any of her brothers in arms. Making a milquetoast character like Bianca shine a feat. Seriously, I hope Curry comes back next year.
Still, Jennifer Pennington’s Emilia is the performance I’ll be thinking about five years down the road. Emilia, the wife of the villain Iago (Jon Huffman), has a hell of a speech near the play’s end that can be the most emotionally devastating piece of “Othello” when well performed.
Pennington doesn’t waste the opportunity, and she mercilessly delivers every drop of anger and despondency that so many people still feel when dealing with partner abuse and the murder of women by jealous men.
If you’re looking for an actor to play Lear, there she is.
Wallace’s conscription of Emilia lends her monologue the weight of another dangerously uneven power dynamic. As a military woman, Othello is her commanding officer. To face him down, she would risk charges of treason, court-martial or possibly incur his wrath and face a punitive deployment to a deadly front in the war.
The updated military setting also allows for a look into PTSD suffered by soldiers and the partner violence it sometimes causes. As Othello, Dathan Hooper mines this territory to find his sudden rages and violent outbursts. Early in the play, before Othello’s jealousy is stoked, we see a softer side of Hooper than he is usually allowed to explore.
Iago, who is both narrator and villain, is normally played as a man approximately the same age as Othello. Instead we have Jon Huffman, and Iago is such a great role that I couldn’t blame him if he chose to chew a little scenery.
Huffman pulls Iago in tight, making him small and bitter — a toxic bully. Huffman’s skill alone merits a role of this size, but as an older actor, he brings a commentary on contemporary race relations.
We see an angry old white man, railing against the success of younger black man, who finally uses violence to take back what he believes is owed to him.
“Othello” continues through July 21, but after July 8, it alternates with “Henry IV” and “Comedy of Errors,” so be sure to check the schedule before you grab your bug spray and go. Or you could download Kentucky Shakespeare’s app and get up-to-date info on food trucks and preshow entertainment.
Kentucky Shakespeare’s shows in Central Park are free.