In ‘Othello,’ 16th century lies and innuendo can seem a lot like 21st century social media
It technically might not be summer quite yet, but Woodward Shakespeare Festival is heating things up with its first production of the season. “Othello” opens 8 p.m. Thursday, June 14, and continues Thursday-Saturdays through July 7. And it’s free!
Here are 5 Things to Know about this new production:
It’s directed by a Woodward Shakespeare veteran returning after a 10-year absence. Arlene Schulman directed “Hamlet” a decade ago. She has a postgraduate diploma from The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon and over 35 years of theatrical experience at professional and community theaters from New York to California.
“We are thrilled to be working with Arlene again,” says festival mainstay Renee Newlove.
There’s a lot of new blood up there on stage. (And blood is always an important part of Shakespearean tragedies, right?) Alexis Elisa Macedo is proud to be making her Woodward Shakes debut this season as Desdemona. She recently completed her first year at Fresno State as a Theatre Arts major with an acting emphasis. Her most recent theater credits include Fresno State’s Theatre for Young Audience’ “Wondrous Tales of Old Japan,” (Koken/Pheasant), Fresno State’s Experimental Theatre Company’ “Den of Thieves” (Boochie) and Selma Arts Center’s “The Little Mermaid” (Atina/Princess).
Othello is played by LaVon Jean-Pierre. He last performed in “Us & Them” (John) at Fresno Soap Co.. He received a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Fresno State.
And for those who are comforted by a familiar face, look no further than Casey Ballard as Iago. A veteran of numerous companies in town, she’s a powerhouse local actor.
Rather than set “Othello” on the third moon of Mars, say, or during the Nigerian Civil War, this Woodward production dares to be — brace yourself — traditional in terms of concept and setting.
“Traditional setting? Why not? The events in Othello are very specific to the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the mid 1570s. I’m fine with modernizing if it adds something to the play. In this case I felt that keeping the play in its historical setting would make it more understandable to the audience. There would be too much in the dialogue that needed to be changed, or which would be anachronistic if set in modern times. And the contrast/comparison to the issues of today — racial bias, women’s and immigration issues, as well as propaganda, “fake news” and other forms of manipulation — are even more startling when seen through the eyes of a different time.”
Are you afraid that a centuries-old play won’t have any relevance today? No worries. “Othello” is as old as time, and as new as today’s headlines, Schulman says.
In her words:
Othello is often described as an “outsider,” as “The Other.” He is what might be described today as an “alien” — an immigrant, a stranger. But he is not the only outsider in Venice. His enemy, Iago, is also alienated from the Venetian military he serves — his service unappreciated, his promotion blocked by class distinctions, his subtle mind poisoned by paranoia. Desdemona has also made herself an outsider — cutting herself off from everything she has known by secretly marrying Othello against her father’s wishes. The differences in their backgrounds, their ages, their life experiences and their place in society, combine to make their relationship vulnerable to the slightest suspicion.
And suspicion, jealousy and hate are just what Iago has in mind for Othello, Desdemona and Cassio. For lies, rumors and innuendo were as damaging in Othello’s time as they are today.
Don’t sweat the heat. As I have urged, cajoled and browbeat my readers for years, the Woodward Shakespeare Festival stage is in the perfect location to feel the cooling breezes of the San Joaquin River. Even on post-100 degree Fresno days, by 8 p.m., the temperature drops to a comfortable level. (OK, if it hits 110 degrees, you might have a half hour or so of squishy temps, but it really isn’t bad.) In fact, you might want to bring a light wrap no matter how hot it gets during the day. The important thing is: Don’t miss the chance to see live, local Shakespeare just because it’s warm. You won’t broil, I promise you.
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