Shakespeare’s Othello is a tragedy about a man of fortune, driven to perform brutal acts, by a psychopath who wields no physical weapon but one of innuendo and manipulation.
Bard on the Beach’s third play to open its 27th season is an Othello meets O’Hara (as in Scarlett) mash up. The idea to use the American Civil War as a backdrop came from the play’s two main stars Luc Roderique (Othello) and Kayvon Kelly (Iago).
The deal was pitched to artistic director Christopher Gaze and sealed once Bob Frazer was secured to direct this rendition. Colonial pieces within Amir Ofek’s stage design and Mara Gottler’s romantic period costumes invoke a Gone with the Wind-era feel.
[Luc Roderique, Kayvon Kelly; Kayla Deorksen, Luisa Jojic]
Slavery and racism were driving forces behind the American Civil War however Frazer’s attempt to highlight this dual theme of discrimination is only successful through the characters of Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) and Iago.
As a mighty general, Othello is either loved or revered by each and every character. He’s neither powerless nor segregated; the only thing setting him apart from the rest of Charleston society is his identity as a Moor.
Roderique plays him as a likable, commanding and noble man, deeply in love with the devoted Desdemona. However, by the end of the first half, we see cracks in the veneer as his mind is poisoned by Iago’s machinations. The Othello we see after the intermission is no longer a collected and content man. Roderique’s portrayal is of a raging, epileptic lunatic whose senses have “gone with the wind”.
[Luc Roderique; Kayvon Kelly, Luisa Jojic]
Frazer adeptly channels the brutality and violence of the American Civil War into the last act of the play. A chaotic fight scene involving Cassio, Iago and Roderigo rages around the stage as Desdemona calmly prepares for bed in its center.
The bloodshed of the men foreshadows her fate at the hands of her paranoid husband, except her death is even more savage. The street brawl is amongst men, and the men are soldiers. Desdemona’s a faithful wife, defenseless against ambush. Frazer deserves recognition for giving focus to the theme of violence against women in his production.
The bedtime conversation between Desdemona and Emilia is especially touching, given that they’ll both be killed by their husbands. Steve Charles’ music and noise effects permeate a feeling of uneasiness, especially through the repetitive refrains from the murder ballad Pretty Polly.
Throughout the play, Kayla Deorksen is a confident and joyous southern belle but her performance is particularly heart-wrenching at the moment Desdemona realizes her beloved means to murder her.
Juisa Jojic (as Iago’s wife Emilia) is equally flirtatious and absorbing to watch but she absolutely steals the stage during the last moments of the play when she berates Othello for his folly.
In the hands of Jeff Gladstone, the character of Michael Cassio is no longer that of a simple lieutenant. Alcohol is his vice, loyalty is his virtue; and remorse is his burden. Similarly, Andrew Cowndon brings depth to the minor role of Roderigo via his expressive pouts, pathetic tonality and nervous gesticulations.
Although Roderigo is Iago’s tool for revenge, he’s also the only character in the production who doesn’t attribute the adjective “honest” with him. Othello is the most duped, calling Iago “honest” 12 times throughout the play.
Frazer was Iago in Bard’s 2009 production of Othello. His portrayal was vile, oily and dripping – dripping venom when plotting revenge and dripping honey when manipulating people.
Kayvon Kelly, as a Civil War Iago, does not drip. There’s neither hot-headed hatred nor gleeful sadism of a mastermind here, rather a lukewarm Iago, plotting schemes with the detachment of a soldier.
It’s hard to believe that Iago’s actions were driven simply because he was passed up for a promotion. There’s simply not enough passion in this villain for that.
This interesting rendition of Othello capitalizes on pregnant silences and the actors’ abilities to convey meaning through facial expressions and body gestures. However, the acoustics in the Douglas Campbell tent are unfavourable.
Lively music drifting from the BMO Mainstage distracts from a few tense scenes crucial to the mood of the play. Not all actors possess the same vocal projection, so some lines may be missed.
As long as manipulators like Iago exist, issues of racism, intolerance and inequality will plague humanity, making Othello as relevant today as it was 400 years ago.
Bob Frazer’s intriguing take on the traditional classic continues at Bard on the Beach’s Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre through September 17. Photos by David Blue.