Review by Wanda Sabir
William Shakespeare’s “Othello” rings with contemporary accuracy in the Marin Shakespeare Company’s closing production during a highly politicized 2015-16 season. From Lauren Gunderson’s “The Taming” to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and now “Othello,” American audiences, especially those at this closing program, are invited to reflect on what drives men to commit the most heinous of crimes.
Is it jealousy? Is it envy? Is it prejudice or racism? Is its genesis inexplicable, yet irresistible? Both the protagonist, Othello, and antagonist, Iago, commit crimes, one driven by passion, the other by an almost calculated scheme that evades as it ensnares.
In the capable hands of veteran actor Cassidy Brown paired with newcomer Dameion Brown, the two characters, Iago and Othello, have a last dance. As the war hero is applauded and honored, Iago seethes, especially when he learns of Othello’s marriage to the fair Desdemona.
The play is as complicated as President Obama getting a bill passed through the Senate. It is the same in Othello’s time too. There are many warring factions he is able to keep at bay. His accolades are duly earned; none can deny this, though Iago tries.
Cassidy Brown’s Iago lets us know immediately that he hates Othello and plans to ruin him. There is lots of imagined blood on stage as friends are betrayed, wives abused and accused of infidelity. Even Desdemona (actress Luisa Frasconi) is not immune from this. Iago’s evidence is circumstantial and the title “honest,” Iago even laughs at its duplicitous nature. As the story moves from the shock waves that greet news that the Moroccan general has made one young Venetian woman very happy to a devious scheme to undo all that even if it means innocent people should die, the audience is left with much to contemplate.
At its core, Othello is a play about race and class. It is also the story of a young woman who is attracted to this hero’s journey. Battles are exciting. Othello’s ability to win excites her, so what separates Desdemona from other thrill seeking groupies?
I wonder if Othello is an aspect of a larger sickness connected to the disease of what Dr. Frances Cress Welsing called white supremacy and racial dominance. An African in Venetian society, Othello who has no surname, shows up a blot on an otherwise pristine canvas. Lady Macbeth in another of the Bard’s historic tales speaks to not being able to remove the “damned spot.” Is Iago representative of an American viewpoint that the African presence post-enslavement is a damn spot that needs a liberal application of Trump bleach?
Cassio, lieutenant to Othello, might have been a genuine friend; after all, Othello promoted him. However, actor Jeff Wiesen’s Cassio is no warrior, Iago is and so is insulted that this “spot” can and did block his promotion. Perhaps success casts Othello-types into a realm where they lose their footing and fall easily into the Desdemona trap – Desdemona a tool manipulated by the evil Iago.
Othello calls Desdemona his heart; she centers him, gives him an anchor in a place where all looks the same – white on white, he the noticeable and despised spot. When he thinks her lost, he literally swoons – this is one of the many time Brown’s character lets us see his agitation. We see how a man could die from a broken heart.
His only inheritance are his stories and a handkerchief his mother gives him for luck. He turns this over to Desdemona, who loses it and then, when she cannot produce the heirloom, learns of its value. As the embroidered piece of cloth trades hands, we see how everyone who touches it wants to copy the stitching. It is a pattern with which the Europeans are unfamiliar.
Othello casts more than his pearls on swine: First he risks his life for people who do not love him, next he gives his heirloom to a groupie, a girl who is as much a sadist as she is a glutton for punishment. However, she does plead for her life when she sees Othello is mad.
Damieon Brown, a formerly incarcerated man who participated and performed in Marin Shakespeare Company’s 2015 “Shakespeare at Solano” theater arts program at California State Prison, Solano, studied, pursued, auditioned and won the role of Othello, one of Shakespeare’s most complicated and enthralling characters. He carries within his person a raging courageous spirit. His escape from bondage not an easy one – 25 years gone.
Othello’s battles are equally legendary. Unlike Othello, Mr. Brown does not compromise his truth. What is the handkerchief Brown’s Othello prizes about all else? Is the writing inscribed there linked to the Drinking Gourd, a celestial tapestry that spells freedom for those traveling with Harriet Tubman north? Does his mother’s artistry spell salvation for the orphaned African?
Look at Sojourner Truth whose business cards with her likeness showed her stitching. Again, writing on fabric. Her caption states, “You have captured the shadow, not the substance.” Isn’t this necessary for true liberation – to stay free, one must not allow another system or power dynamic to capture one’s substance?
Othello loses when he gives all away: shadow and substance, body and soul, psyche and soma. How is it when we step away from our Blackness, the legacy our ancestors stored in our DNA or genetic memory banks, we lose?
Dameion Brown’s Othello with actress Luisa Franconi’s Desdemona weave a tapestry Cupid would be jealous of. Actress Elena Wright as Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s companion/maid, as part of a superb company ensemble, gives an excellent performance as she is ill-used then gives witness to Othello her maid’s innocence.
Marin Shakespeare’s closing work is perfect pitch for the electoral season ahead. It was a bit chilly; however, warm tea and a warmer blanket helped tremendously. Oh and the cushions complete the affair – bring your own or rent a couple at the gate like we did. Don’t miss this performance, which closes Sept. 25 at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University of California, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael, 415-499-4488. Tickets are $10-$35 at http://marinshakespeare.org/tickets/.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.