The newest production to open at the Schwartz Center’s Kiplinger Theater, William Shakespeare’s Othello begins with an admission of jealousy. Iago (Martin Hillier) is furious at the good fortune of the Venetian general, Othello (Patrick Rameau) as well as his own private misfortune after losing the chance of being Othello’s lieutenant to another soldier named Cassio (Matt Volner ’06). The moody soldier’s thoughts turn toward sabotage and as the bright marble-colored set is subdued by softer lighting meant to represent night, Iago’s villainous confessions become similarly cloaked in mystery and secrecy.
Directed by guest director Robert Kalfin, Othello is presented as a study of the human condition. Said Kalfin of what idea he’d like to convey through the play, “Just Shakespeare’s message to the audience which makes them aware of the betrayal of humanity and human fallibility. Everything that we have done in physical production has come out of the imagery that’s already in the play in terms of him putting visibility of human fallibility against the enormity of the cosmos. This comes out of the language within the text.”
Kalfin is a veteran of the theatre, having directed over 150 productions on Broadway, off Broadway, regionally as well as internationally. Also the founder and artistic director of the Chelsea Theater Center, Kalfin’s comprehensive career in the performing arts has included multiple collaborations with major talents. Describing his experience directing a play at Cornell, Kalfin explained, “My favorite parts about doing the play here was the extraordinary resources and the physical resources and in particular the extraordinary talents of the first class professional people working here in terms of the design component and technical component of this theater.
Gripping and complex, Shakespeare’s classic play of betrayal remains viable in a way that exists independent of today’s plot-obsessed productions. “It captures the grandiosity and the epic size of the world and the emotional life of these characters,” explained Rameau of the play. “It’s a production that captures the vastness and the grandeur of the human spirit in comparison to the insignificance of a handkerchief and that’s the whole image that the director has been working with, the idea that something so insignificant in the scheme of things can destroy life.”
The story being told is a familiar one. Othello the moor is a beloved general of Venice. His subordinate, Iago is infuriated after Othello chooses Cassio to be his new lieutenant and vows vengeance. Iago decides to approach the task of usurping his general’s good fortune through the dynamic and fragile bond of human relationships. Fueled by envy, Iago carefully sows seeds of suspicion within Othello’s mind that suggest Desdemona (Emily Ranii ’07), the general’s new wife, to be guilty of adultery with none other than the new lieutenant, Cassio. As Iago’s devious mental machinations achieve horrific physical form after feeding on the insecurities inherent within every human being, we watch, awestruck and powerless to stop the story’s progression toward its own inevitably tragic end.
“Everything is challenging in a Shakespearean drama or even a Shakespearean comedy,” said Rameau. “He’s the greatest writer that’s ever existed on the planet so all of his characters are epic in proportion – and that world is a challenge and handling that language is always a bit of a challenge.”
Navigating through a Shakespearean masterpiece by directing Othello, Kalfin attempts to help audiences achieve a greater understanding of and appreciation for the themes and emotions at the heart of the play. “Every individual artist or director has their own artistic vision or imagination to realize a play. The way I’m doing the play is coming out of my wanting the audience to experience the way which make them conscious of what Shakespeare is doing so all the choices that I have made production-wise are part of that overall point of view.”
Propelling his role as a potential mediator between the Bard and modern day audiences, Kalfin’s vision for Othello as a tumultuous and timeless piece about the humanity we can all relate to would not be complete without the ensemble cast that readily brings the story’s characters to life. Rameau’s Othello is passionate in all respects of life and experiences every emotion with such genuine vivacity that we cannot help but be caught up in the whirlpool of his psyche. Said Rameau of his character, “I think what’s important is that we see a man in love, a man who is almost like Romeo at the beginning of the play who is destroyed by a series of lies, a series of Machiavellian moves on the part of a very trusted friend.”
Meanwhile Hillier’s version of Iago is fiery in his calculated, chilling cruelty. A true villain driven by obsession, Iago uses with ease drippy, fixated Roderigo (Gary DeVault ’05) who is in love with Desdemona as well as his own wife, Emilia (Carolyn Goelzer) whose devotion proves to be her undoing.
Othello also features fight sequences choreographed by B.H. Barry, whose body of work includes over 40 Broadway shows as well as feature film credits. A story that often reaches emotional extremes and positions the complex psychological turmoil characteristic of the human spirit at center stage, Othello injects a sense of agency into seemingly mundane components of life and reveals horrific suspicions of betrayal to be founded in pure imagination. Even the greatest of men and women, it seems, remain bound by that very imperfection which renders us human.
Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Arts and Entertainment Editor