Shakespeare classic cast in new light

By MaryBeth Gronek

The love of a chaste woman for an upstanding gentleman is brutally destroyed by jealousy in the Shakespearean classic Othello. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents more than just a story of two naïve lovers who happen to be swept up in an unfair world. Instead, this play is a vibrant exploration of a love that could have been, a devastating feat of cunning, and a display of human flaws that unravel all at once, punctuated by wit that only Shakespeare could provide.

Othello, played by Derrick Lee Weeden, is the highlight of the show. Weeden has an excellent grasp on how to deliver his lines effectively, and he handles the pace and emphasis of particular lines, the rise and fall of his voice, and the emotional torment of his character with poise and control. With more than 40 Shakespeare productions under his belt, Weeden’s exquisite performance makes him not only the lead in terms of plot, but also the star of the show.

Othello fans know that Iago is a complex character and thus a very tricky casting call. Therefore, Iago’s portrayal in this particular production is a little confusing. In the written work he is a cunning serpent, conniving but simultaneously calm and collected, whose actions are always in accordance with his sneaky character. In this production, however, Iago’s character is inconsistent. The driving force for his actions is his quest for vengeance, not his innate rottenness. When the end of the play reveals him to be responsible for the death of four characters, he acts like a weak wretch who is actually sorry for his deeds. This is far from the self-assured, cunning man presented in Shakespeare’s work. The question of cunning is also an issue in Iago’s delivery; he comes off as agitated and overly angry. Although he delivers his lines clearly, I envisioned a slyer dialogue than was presented in the shouting match that closes the play. The line uttered right after the death of Cassio and Rodrigo, “This is the night that either makes me or fordoes me quite,” comes out as more of a thunderous bellow than a guileful, devious whisper.

Despite the confusing portrayal of Iago, the rest of the cast is well chosen and accurately portrays the play’s characters. Kudos are due to Lesley Bevan, who flawlessly plays the multi-faceted, extremely complicated role of Emilia, and John Hoogenakker and Ginger Lee McDermott, respectively the foolish Rodrigo and Bianca, who impressively showcase their talents despite their small roles. The strong cast leads to a solid and a highly enjoyable show.

Lighting and wardrobe were also strong points of the performance. During the opening act, which takes place in Venice, all the characters wear black and the lighting is dim and murky. But as the play progresses, the clothing takes on a creamy hue and the lighting gets brighter. The final scene, in which three of the main characters lay dead, uses the brightest lighting of the whole play. Initially this seems counterintuitive—when one envisions a tragedy, the scenes usually grow progressively darker in order to foreshadow the grim outcome. Instead, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s use of dark-to-bright lighting seems to reflect Othello’s understanding of Desdemona and Iago. In the beginning, Othello is shielded from Iago’s true nature, and consequently much of the lighting is black. He knows Desdemona, but is uncertain of her chastity. As Iago works his scheming trickery, Othello begins to consider the possibility that Desdemona is not who he thought she was. In addition, Iago is no longer of one-dimensional interest to Othello as an impartial subordinate, but becomes involved in his personal life. In both instances, his mind is being opened to possibilities. As these options germinate and grow into complex thoughts and anxieties, the stage gets progressively illuminated. In the last scene, in which Othello possesses concrete proof of his wife’s chastity as well as full knowledge of Iago’s true character, the lights are blindingly bright. In this sense, the lighting parallels Othello’s mental state and guides the audience through the progression that culminates tragically in his own death.

“Honest Iago,” as he is known in the play, would advise you to just take my word that this is an excellent show. But considering that he causes the death of four of his closest companions—all of whom are under the illusion that he fully embodies the phrase—I wouldn’t necessarily take his word for it. Honest MaryBeth, however, advises that you take a break from the monotony of studying—trust me, it will still be there when you get back—and experience one of Shakespeare’s finest plays for yourself.