Review: “Othello”

 Othello (James Vincent Meredith) clings tightly to his bride Desdemona (Bethany Jillard) after her father disowns her in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Munby, in CST’s Courtyard Theater now through April 10, 2016. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Othello (James Vincent Meredith) clings tightly to his bride Desdemona (Bethany Jillard) after her father disowns her in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Munby, in CST’s Courtyard Theater now through April 10, 2016.

Photo by Liz Lauren

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through April 10
Tickets: $48-$88
Phone: 312-595-5600
Theater Critic

Rarely has a modern-dress production done more to clarify the relevance of one of Shakespeare’s plays than U.K. Director Jonathan Munby’s staging of “Othello” for Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of the year-long Shakespeare 400 Chicago festival.

The director places the intimate tragedy of jealousy and revenge very clearly in the context of a stark, testosterone-fueled military world, and that colors our perceptions of the characters and everything they do. Even the set up before Othello (James Vincent Meredith) is sent to secure Cyprus for the Venetians establishes his position as an outsider and a source of suspicion.

Munby starts the play with a scene of the Moor’s secret marriage to Desdemona (Bethany Jillard), so that when Iago (Michael Milligan) arouses her father, Brabantio (David Lively) to inform him and suggest she’s been coerced, we get a visceral sense of the racism at work. At the same time, the fascist-looking façade of Alexander Dodge’s set design for Brabantio’s building reinforces the idea of a rigid, ugly Venice that Desdemona would eagerly want to leave. Once the Duke (Melissa Carlson, in a Sarah Palin-worthy red suit by costume designer Linda Cho) assembles her advisers in the war room to discuss the Turkish threat, and Othello gets a reprieve from Brabantio’s demand for justice because he’s a valued commander, it’s no wonder Desdemona pleads to go with him to his new post.

Dodge’s design for the Cyprus encampment, with its barbed-wire fences and modular metal rooms resembling oversize packing crates, makes the Venice left behind look almost pleasant. Add Philip Rosenberg’s harsh, glaring lighting and Lindsay Jones often blaring sound design, and the atmosphere would set anyone on edge. In addition, the rough, rather crude soldiers are omnipresent, and every detail seems to come under their scrutiny.

Milligan’s Iago easily takes advantage of this environment to bring down Othello, who he’s told us he suspects of sleeping with his wife and hates for preferring Cassio (Luigi Sottile), as well as Cassio, who had been promoted over him. But he’s matter-of-fact enough that he seems to be making up his manipulations as he goes along rather than having an overall plan.

When Sottile’s handsome and guileless Cassio admits he has a problem with alcohol, Iago encourages him to get drunk, and when that results in a brawl and Othello’s demoting Cassio and making “honest Iago” his ensign, Iago urges Cassio to ask Desdemona to help him get back in Othello’s good graces. Then he uses her innocent friendship with Cassio to insinuate to Othello that they’re having an affair. At the same time, he also uses the foolish—here nerdy— Roderigo (Fred Geyer), who professes to love Desdemona, as a source of income and later to try to kill Cassio, though that plot falls a bit by the wayside.

One of the persistent questions about the play is why Othello falls so readily for Iago’s machinations. Meredith’s complicated Moor comes across as level-headed and reasonable at the start, but he does a convincing job of unraveling, though arguably too quickly, as jealousy takes hold and eats away at him. There’s a certain coolness in his relationship with Jillard’s Desdemona from the beginning that makes his insecurity more plausible. A blond beauty who could almost be a trophy bride, she professes her passion and fidelity, but we never really feel the bond between them. The down side of this is that we’re not as devastated when the bond is broken—except perhaps by her death scene.

Another crucial issue is why Emilia doesn’t tell Desdemona or Othello that she found the handkerchief and gave it to her husband, Iago, as soon as she realizes that he put it in Cassio’s room and is using that to incite Othello’s jealousy. Munby finesses this by making Emilia a soldier assigned to Desdemona rather than her long-time maid and confidante, so that it makes more sense that her first loyalty would be to her husband. And Jessie Fisher’s fine performance does the rest: We see her affection for Iago—and even a hint of his for her—but also her sympathy for Desdemona and growing horror at what’s happening. (It’s just too bad that Othello never remembers that he’s the one who dropped the handkerchief in the first place in this production, after Desdemona used it to wipe his brow.)

In sum, Chicago Shakespeare’s latest “Othello” is admirably clear, solidly acted, powerfully designed, and based on a vision of the play that works. The drawbacks are that parts of it seem slowly paced—especially the drawn-out antics of the soldiers in the mess hall—and I felt that I should have been moved more than I was.