There’s been punk Shakespeare, cowboy Shakespeare, even extraterrestrial Shakespeare. Now, in Fullerton, there’s Persian Gulf Shakespeare.
Director Tom Blank has taken “Othello,” that wrenching epiphany of jealousy and vengeance, and tossed it into a militaristic Middle East framework. It’s not Kuwait that’s been invaded, but Cyprus, prompting an infusion of American soldiers to protect imperialist interests.
The vain Othello is now a brigadier general; his wife, Desdemona, is the daughter of a Southern U.S. senator. Treacherous Iago deals drugs in every barrack with the help of cocaine-snorting Roderigo. Most of the men wear combat camouflage, except for Roderigo, who’s partial to “Miami Vice” duds.
In this age of conceptual Shakespeare, the trend is toward experimentation and license, which aren’t such bad things. If the idea is grounded by Shakespeare’s original intent and keeps faith with the characters, then why not? Modern ideas for modern times.
The trouble with Blank’s sweeping revision is the scale of the situation to which he turns for inspiration. By citing the Middle East, and with his barely disguised references to Iraq and Kuwait, Blank creates a backdrop so loaded with associations that the gist of “Othello” is obscured.
The machinations of Iago and the succumbing of Othello wind up seeming like minor human folly. The concept threatens to swallow the characters.
To Blank’s credit, the production did seem to hold the primarily college-age audience at a recent performance. This “Othello” may not have included all the shading that a Shakespeare purist might like, but its bold imagery seemed to entertain, and the applause was loud at play’s end.
GIs dancing at a smoky disco with miniskirted hookers, contrasted with devout Muslims supplicating at sunset, helped create visual interest, even if it ultimately seemed gratuitous. Rex Heuschkel’s abstractly pillared set and Bob Jensen’s gauzy lighting are dramatically designed.
So are the performances, but not always with the refinement found on the technical side. Shakespeare may be the toughest assignment even for the best students, and the toil of the challenge is clear throughout the cast. Paul Hagerty’s Iago is interesting, though, mainly for the enthusiasm in his wild-eyed nastiness.
Cress Williams also gets wild-eyed as Othello, especially when jealousy begins to reign in his house. But the portrayal doesn’t go beyond the obvious, and Williams tends to overact. All his emotions are on the outside; it’s difficult to connect with Othello’s internal struggle.