The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about ART’s Othello

The current production of Othello at the American Repertory Theater forces the audience to see the play’s importance to our cultural moment. Bill Rauch’s direction does not allow us to rationalize Othello as different – in another language, from another era, about other people. The show, originally created at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, shows us the misogyny and violence and racism in our own time, and the stunning acting ensures that we cannot look away.

I had the good fortune to see this Othello with Christina Tucker, a former student who is now a colleague and friend (check out @C_GraceT for her wisdom on theater, books, and all things pop culture).  As we thought out loud about the play during intermission and after the show, she noted that the setting was very specifically contemporary  to our moment– this is not some vaguely “modern” production with actors in chronologically ambiguous suits. Brabantio has a smart phone. Othello, Iago, Emilia, and Desdemona work out in a gym festooned with a bank of TV screens showing different cable channels. The military part of the cast wore authentic US Navy uniforms, complete with embroidered name tags (Othello is now an “admiral” rather than the “general” of the original text, btw). Part of the brilliance of the production is that it doesn’t seem odd at all that these very-2019 Americans are communicating in Early Modern English Poetry.

conversation between Othello and Iago set in a 21st-century gym
Chris Butler as Othello and Danforth Comins as Iago

As I walked through Cambridge in some thematically appropriate snow and sleet after the show, I was thinking about that contemporaneity, and specifically about Danforth Comins as Iago.  As far as I’m concerned, no one has ever fully answered the crucial question about this play: Why does Iago ruin all these lives? Various answers include his suspicion of his own cuckoldry; his anger at not being promoted; his racism; his enjoyment in his role of puppeteer; or his sexual desires for Desdemona, Othello, or Cassio.  And yes, all of these are factors, but Comins has provided an answer to that question unique to this production, this moment of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and our culture’s interrogations of structural racism and sexism.

In this Othello, Comins as Iago embodies patriarchy firmly planted in the 2019 United States. He is a walking, talking, fighting personification of an ingrained system of privileged power.  His entitlement as a handsome, articulate, powerful white man allows him to obey no boundaries other than his own desires and expectations. The most frightening part of his performance was not his murder of his wife (although a number of audience members gasped when he drove the knife into Emilia), but his soliloquies to the audience about his plots and his exultation at their unfolding.

When Iago spoke to us, the lights in the house went up a bit, weakening even more the separation between the actor and audience. One conventional critique of Iago is that these speeches make the audience complicit in his crimes; in this theater, the lighting design made that complicity painfully explicit.  Comins’s Iago as a personification of patriarchy thus answers that “why?” question, if only for this moment: Iago ruins all these lives because oppression and sexism and racism ruin lives, and we, his audience, are complict in that ruin.

#OthelloOSF plays at American Repertory Theater through 9 February 2019