Othello, a tale from the American Civil War

Kathleen Rowe

Having never seen or read Othello, and only using Iago as a crossword answer for ‘villain’ I was intrigued to find out just what this Shakespeare play, written when he was at the top of his form, was all about.

The Bard on the Beach production of Othello is set in 1864, towards the end of the American Civil War and it fits perfectly with the underlying theme of racism which is evident throughout the play.

Even though Othello has been promoted to Union Army General, he is treated with suspicion and has to wed Desdemona secretly has her father, Brabantio would not approve.

“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe,”
  – Iago

In the 1600s people with dark non-white skin were put in cages an displayed in the town square as curiosities. Even though the Union Army were fighting for emancipation in the Civil War there was still an acceptance of slavery and racism throughout the north and south.

Kayvon Kelly as Iago, in his fourth season of Bard, was very compelling, and a strong presence on stage. Indeed the play lagged a little when he wasn’t on stage. You could always feel his loathing for Othello.Photo 3_0

Othello was an imposing character but easily duped by the cruel Iago.

Why does he “Hate Othello?” It was stated with great vehemence more than once. Iago’s racism is at times very overt and other times subtle and poisonous.

Was it because Othello is black, or is he truly jealous?

It’s part of what makes the play so fascinating, Iago so delightfully evil, and Othello so utterly tragic.

Iago was both jealous and racist and felt passed over as Othello had chosen Cassio as his lieutenant

Even the handkerchief that Iago uses to spur jealousy in Othello was said to have special powers instilled from Othello, as if there was ‘black magic’ involved.

The death scene was a little weak and some members of the audience were even laughing although I could not see the humour in it. It kind of showed that Othello’s character, played by Luc Roderique, was not as strong as Iago although his physical presence on stage was imposing (tall and dark).

Director Bob Frazer says “by setting Othello during the American Civil War, we are shining a light on what many suspect to be the beginning of the new, deep-seated and subtle racism in North America.”

Frazer has been at Bard on the Beach since playing Hamlet in 2005. Since graduating from Studio 58 he has amassed almost 100 theatrical credits both as a director and actor.

He feels Shakespeare’s Othello is a “timeless story that moves audiences on a personal level, all while creating some of the most memorable characters in his canon.”

Luc Roderique (Othello) & Kayla Deorksen (Desdemona) OTHELLO, 2016 Bard on the Beach Photo: David Blue
Luc Roderique (Othello) & Kayla Deorksen (Desdemona)
OTHELLO, 2016
Bard on the Beach
Photo: David Blue

The folk and instrumental music used throughout the play captured the patriotic fervor of the Civil War and the mournful ballads brought the themes of slavery, loyalty and love to life. Costumes were authentic to the period as well.

A well done and timely Shakespeare experience!

As always, we have to ask ourselves: would the bard approve of this production?

Yes! Forsooth he would!


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Weather the Tempest and you will not regret the storm

Daniel J. Rowe

In the final trip to the Bard on the Beach for the Bard Brawl the Tempest awaited. It is an entirely unique play in William Shakespeare’s cannon and has the potential to be one of the most entertaining, provoking and touching. It can fall flat or be incredibly moving.

Did director Meg Roe pull it out under the tent?

To quote Omar from the Wire, ‘Indeed.’ (That was Shakespeare right?)

Meg Roe's Tempest finds the balance between wonder and soliloquy at Bard on the Beach. Photo credit - David Blue
Meg Roe’s Tempest finds the balance between wonder and soliloquy at Bard on the Beach.
Photo credit – David Blue

Roe’s Tempest executes the most difficult of things in live theatre: balance. The play bounces between incredible design, action, and intrigue and the subtle and powerful monologues of the play’s centre: Prospero (Allan Morgan).

Indeed the isle was full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that gave delight and did not hurt (wink), but first we have to get there.

Relinquishing solitude and embracing the brave new world is a wise model for theatre goers who should take in the Tempest. Photo credit - David Blue
Relinquishing solitude and embracing the brave new world is a wise model for theatre goers who should take in the Tempest.
Photo credit – David Blue

The staging of the opening ship wreck was very clever, loud, and set the play perfectly as it destroyed the ship carrying the King of Naples and left him and his crew on the island inhabited by the exiled wizard, his naive daughter and a sprite name Ariel (no, not that Ariel. She’s a mermaid).

The balance between stylized action and solitary poetry is the Tempest at its best, and Roe does not miss an opportunity to exploit this juxtaposition (even if she spells her last name wrong. Shouldn’t it be R-O-W-E?).

Morgan is great as the aging Shakespeare getting ready to say goodbye to theatre. Er I mean Prospero saying goodbye to the island and his daughter. He is lucky (or unlucky depending on your style), as he gets a handful of the most famous of Shakespeare monologues. You can bet there were a few nights when a few theatre grads had copies of the text in hand and mouthed along to:

Our revels now are ended.

These our actors, as I fortold you, were all spirits and

are melted into air, into thin air.

Gotta love theatre grads. Wait a second. Most of the cast is theatre grads. Forget I said anything.

The only thing I can ask for is what Morgan was able to give me. Even though the lines were familiar and I knew they were coming they still had that sad melancholy of an artist hanging up his quill. He made them memorable and meaningful. It’s especially difficult to draw and audience in to that level of intimacy after some of the spectacle scenes that preceded and followed the lines.

And the spectacle can’t be understated. Roe’s Tempest is full of some really incredible design and style that added as much magic to the island as any Puck infested forest.

Speaking of whimsy and wonder, Ariel (Jennifer Lines) has a dramatic and powerful presence throughout the play. She pulls a little Galadriel out in one of the most impressive scenes of the whole production. Shivers.

Go see the play. You’ll get it.

Props has to also go to the Miranda (Lili Beaudoin) as Prospero’s naive daughter flitting around the island after love of her life (you know, the third guy she’s met in her life) Ferdinand (Daniel Doheny), while having her eyes opened to the brave new world (wink) that awaits her. Oh that world is a bunch of conniving, back-stabbing, flaky aristocrats Miranda. Sorry. Welcome to reality. Have a wonderful wedding.

Trincula (Luisa Jojic) and Stephana (Naomi Wright) threw me off a bit, but showed their quality in the end; just like Faramir. The jester and drunkard were great at playing off Caliban (Todd Thomson), and gave the audience a more than a few laughs even if they were of the ‘ha ha she’s drunk’ variety. For me, I could have taken a little less from the scenes, but, hey, who am I to criticize what everyone else is enjoying? More poop jokes!

Ariel pulls out a little Galadriel in the midst of the Tempest, no complaints here. Photo credit - David Blue
Ariel pulls out a little Galadriel in the midst of the Tempest, no complaints here.
Photo credit – David Blue

Sitting waiting for the play to start both myself and my brother noted the set. The design was perfect. Not too much, not too bare. The players worked their way through the set with ease, and were able to shine and wind their way through the design. The trap door was used sparingly and to great effect.

On a side note I would like to congratulate myself for not geeking out when I saw sound designer Alessandro Juliani walk by before the play. It’s hard to resist bringing it up, and insist on going over some of the decisions Felix Gaeta made in season four of Battlestar Galactica. He used to come into a restaurant I managed in Vancouver about seven years ago. Very nice guy. What a great show.

The Tempest is one of those plays Shakespeare theatre troupes can’t resist adding to the bill especially in the summer. The play can be very entertaining or mind-numbingly boring based on choices the director makes and the performances that accompany. Bard on the Beach pulled this one off not adding too many overly clever bits and adding just enough style for the wow factor. Props to the cast and crew.

Do yourself a favour if you’re in Vancouver between now and the end of September and check it out.

 

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