Everything about Court Theatre's re-imagined 100-minute “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” is unsettling, if not downright disturbing.
Even the theater itself has gotten a makeover that suggests a work in progress or world in process. Inspired by the period in the pandemic when reduced capacity was the rule, most of the fixed seats have been covered with tarps, and the playing area on the ground level is fitted out with swivel chairs in sections delineated by tape. The total seating is 81. Orange scaffolding rises almost to the ceiling all around and is used for many scenes, making the ability of the audience to swivel essential. When the action isn't up close and personal, that is, because the actors use every available inch of the space.
Co-directors Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent put almost as much of an emphasis on what isn't said or seen as what is. Rather than describing Othello's military triumph over the Turks in words, the opening sequence by movement designer Erin Kilmurray is a dumb show featuring Othello (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) and Iago (Timothy Edward Kane). It's not as moving as her choreography for Court's “Oedipus Rex,” though, and I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to mean.
The stylization continues throughout the play so that, for example, when a character dies or gets killed, he or she then stands up and walks away or remains motionless, This is especially disconcerting when Othello strangles Desdemona (Amanda Drinkall), though from where I was sitting this was hard to see because it takes place on the scaffolding. Other murders happen in the dark, as Keith Parham's stark lighting simply goes out.
Newell's program note makes much of how “the Venice of Shakespeare's imagination” offered a “social landscape” where questions of class, race and gender permeated every aspect of life much as they have in Chicago (and the country) for the last eighteen months. His production doubles down on the text in various ways, especially in the unconventional casting.
Like Othello himself, Cassio (Sheldon D. Brown) is Black, which adds a dimension to Iago's assertion that he hates the Moor for preferring Cassio over himself for promotion to lieutenant. Is this his racism talking or, as some unenlightened people might wonder, is there a possibility of bias?
Casting Darren Patin, “aka Chicago Drag Queen Ari Gato,” as Cassio's girlfriend Bianca also has an interesting effect. His choice of mate makes it even more unlikely that he would be sleeping with Desdemona, magnifying the toxic influence of unfounded jealousy — and of Iago's machinations — on Othello.
While the Moor's angst and eventual downfall are at the center of Court's interpretation, and Roston gives a strong, thoughtful performance, I found Iago more compelling. That's partly because we never get a sense of the love, or even a real connection, between Othello and Desdemona, even during the added wedding party scene. And it's even more because Kane is splendid as the manipulative, unsmiling Iago.
Since his soliloquies have been trimmed, Iago's motivation has been condensed from a variety of complaints to two, and Cassio's promotion over him is not the most important one. His suspicion that his wife, Emilia (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), has slept with Othello emerges in several speeches as the main source of his hatred, driving him to intense jealousy. So, rather than being gratuitously evil, he deliberately sets out to make Othello suffer in the same way he thinks Othello has made him suffer.
In the end, Iago comes across as more fully human than usual, even vulnerable. The nuances of his interactions with Gonzalez-Cadel's terrific Emilia reveal the bond between them, explaining why she goes along with his request for the handkerchief, even though she soon regrets the damage her betrayal of her mistress has caused. Her death arguably is as painful as Desdemona's.
Rounding out the cast admirably are Erik Hellman as the misused Roderigo, Karissa Murrell Myers as the Duke (a gender switch that's neither here nor there) and Sean Fortunato as Desdemona's father Brabantio and Montano, though the way he walks off dead as the first and arrives almost immediately as the second is confusing.
Also confusing, to me at least, are some of the directorial decisions. At one point, all the actors line up, then sit down in a row of seats and fidget, watching and waiting for something that never happens. Some of Raquel Adorno and Gregory Graham's costumes are as distracting as they are striking. For instance, Desdemona and Emilia wear identical satin gowns, only Desdemona's is white and Emilia's is black, a thematic point perhaps, but one that draws too much attention to itself.
Andre Pluess's sound design gets our attention, in the way it's supposed to. John Culbert's scenic design serves the show's conception well, but I must admit to having qualms about the conception. It strikes me as more convincing in theory than in practice.