A 17th Century Tragedy Gets A 21st Century Look


Jay Quantrill

Jay Quantrill

Writer, Better Lemons


Los Angeles’ premiere classic theatre, A Noise Within, has brought to the stage Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, one of the Southland’s most respected directors. And Ms. Kubzansky has given us a 17th century script adorned in 21st century styles, outfitting civilians characters in business wear, with dress blues and camo gear for military personnel – for Othello is a tale of wartime infighting.

So, the question inevitably arises: what happens when you take a four-hundred-year-old play and dress it up in modern duds? Is it suddenly more pertinent? Does it become easier to find some relevance to our own lives as the action unfolds? Does it jolt the imagination into today’s news, or add a depth of understanding to the wars we’re now fighting? Do we see in the title character, Othello – a black man leading white army – as a sort of precursor of our own Colin Powell? Do Venice’s battle against the Turks parallel our current troubles half-way around the globe? These are judgments each member of the audience must and will make for themselves.

But Othello is not actually about war, or even the place of the military in a society, modern or medieval. It’s a tragedy of loving “not wisely, but too well.” It’s a game of cat and mouse played between naïve nobility and craven jealousy, between powerful and the subservient.

The artistic tension between what the ear hears and the eye sees will depend upon the patron’s taste, and the juxtaposition of a formal public social structure with 21st century informality requires constant mental adjustment on the part of the viewer, but not for the cast of this production which handles it with consummate aplomb.

But what Shakespeare wrote in 17th century poetry is as clear cut as a diamond. Othello is the taut tale of a powerful noble African warrior driven to murder his beloved wife by the scheming of a disgruntled subordinate.

Othello, an exotic, grandiloquent warrior, promotes Cassio, a charming if militarily untested junior officer, to second in command. Iago, a proud, cunning, more experienced fighter, is thus passed over in favor of a man he thinks less qualified. To be demeaned is one thing, but that it is so thoughtlessly arranged by a blackamoor general with whom Iago has fought on many occasions leaves Iago seething. And as Roderigo, a buffoonish friend of Iago remembers it, even before Cassio’s elevation Iago has a thing for Othello.

“Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.”

Why? Perhaps because everything comes too easily to Othello, for Iago’s sense of fairness. Othello was written as an exotic, larger than life figure whose powers of seduction attract not just women’s adoration and desire, but men’s admiration, devotion, and loyalty. Cassio is a young stud, rising fast through the ranks, destined to become another privileged leader. And that what sticks in Iago’s craw.

So Iago weaves his web of destruction around Othello’s heart, using first his knowledge of Othello’s most dangerous – most troubling – secret. Having gained the adoration of Desdemona, a Venetian politician’s lily white, virginal daughter, Othello married her – in secret. But is their relationship on solid? When he is questioned, he responds:

She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d;
And I lov’d her that she did pity them.

Is that a firm basis for marriage between a favored, young white girl and a black battle-hardened warrior? Can it weather the raging storm of jealousy Iago sets swirling around them? This production plays down the racial tensions – allowing them, but never focusing on them.

And as if that weren’t enough, Iago has another, more intimate grievance. He says – maybe just assumes – the noble Othello has slept with Emilia, Iago’s wife. Does he believe it, or is it merely a charge Iago concocts to justify his hatred? The audience must decide for themselves. Whatever the truth, the stage ripe for tragedy. Game, set, match!

Director Kubzansky has also brought the casting into the 21st century. It is the mother of Desdemona who objects to her daughter’s marriage to the black warrior, not the father as Shakespeare wrote it. And the council who whom this mother takes her grievance is headed by a female duke in consultation with a mixed gender council. The effect of these gender alterations is yet another issue audience must assess according to their own understanding of human relationships.

ANW’s Othello presents the title character as a fine and apparently capable leader of men, but does he have the awe-inspiring nobility to elicit the depth of pathos usually associated with Shakespearian tragedy? The question is, is such “awe” necessary for the show to succeed with the audience?

Check it out. Decide for yourself. However you decide, it is a stage worthy production deserving of attention.

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