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26.7.12

Othello

by William Shakespeare

I am currently playing Desdemona in a production of OTHELLO at The Gallery Players.

Desdemona/Othello
I have so many thoughts running through my head about this play at the moment, so I'll try to keep this post coherent and somewhat organized.

In accepting the role of Desdemona, my main concern was to find the human being within the archetype of "obedient wife," "saint," "weak woman," or whatever other criticisms that have been assigned to her over the years. Most women I talk to think Des is submissive and uninteresting. I think it's a shame that the qualities of obedience, loyalty, faithfulness, and love could be seen in our modern world as "boring" or "weak." In playing her, I chose to make these qualities my strength.
Choice among my freedoms is my freedom to be
obedient. I obey because I want to: I choose to.  -Boyd K. Packer
I also strove to give her a personality outside of her violent fate. She is more than just 'the girl who gets smothered at the end.' (oops, *spoiler alert!) Her journey is quite extreme and I wanted that to be reflected in all of its wonderful complications.

I had never seen a production of Othello before working on this play and every day I discover something new. I'm constantly hearing lines in different ways and falling more and more in love with the language of the play. That is, in huge part, due to our amazing (and devastatingly handsome) cast! Seriously. If you like men in uniform (and women in corsets) this show is for you.
Cassio, Othello, and Iago

Iago, for all his evilness, has some of the best lines in the play. To Roderigo, in reference to his love of Desdemona, Iago tells him:
'Tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our Bodies are our Gardens, to the which our Wills are Gardeners. So that if we will plant Nettles or sow Lettuce, set Hyssop and weed up Thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry -- why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our Wills. If the balance of our lives had not one Scale of Reason, to poise another of Sensuality, the Blood and Baseness of our Natures would conduct us to most preposterous Conclusions. But we have Reason to cool our raging Motions, our carnal Stings, unbitted Lusts, whereof I take this, that you call Love, to be a Sect or Scion.
I find it interesting that Iago advocates for the use of reason, essentially to avoid acting on impulse or taking action that one might regret because, while I think Iago is really effing smart, at the same time, I think he is one big ball of 'raging Motions.' That might be his tragic flaw. No one can say he doesn't think through his actions - he does, out loud even! - but if he could check his own jealousy he'd make a better end. Of course, if he did, we wouldn't have a play.

David Patrick Ford as Iago
As a Resident Artist of The Shakespeare Forum, I watch actors every week bringing in monologues to work on and if there is one character that consistently inspires the men at Forum it's Iago. I have seen angry Iagos, gleeful Iagos, Southern Iagos, EVIL Iagos, you name it. (side note: I've never seen a female Iago at Forum -- though I hope someone reading this takes that challenge!) Afterwards, debates get heated, opinions are strong, but the work is always passionate. There's something in this character that ignites the imagination and excites the inner villain in us all. Our Iago, the wonderful David Patrick Ford, gains our trust by embodying 'honest Iago,' and maintaining that earnestness until he speaks to the audience and allows his true thoughts to shine.

In speaking with Othello, he explains the importance of reputation:

Good name in Man and Woman, dear my Lord,
Is the immediate Jewel of their souls; Who steals my purse, steals trash-
'Tis something, nothing,
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands-
But he that filches from me my good Name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

I love this speech because taken out of context the words are so true and so pure, and yet when you consider how much of a dick Iago just was to Cassio, essentially destroying his reputation, these words take on a whole new level of meaning and show just how good Iago is at deception and manipulation. A few scenes prior, poor Cassio is distraught, bemoaning his night of revels:
O, that men should put an Enemy in their mouths, to steal away their brains, that we should with joy, pleasance, revel and applause, transform ourselves into Beasts. 
O, Cass, we feel for you.. cause we've all had a night like that.

Something I've been thinking about a lot with regards to this play is the audience reaction. Today, even if you don't know Othello you probably know that Othello kills his wife and that Iago is the "bad guy." When this play was first performed, was it possible that the audience might have thought of Iago as the good guy until the end of the play? As the hero, even? Iago speaks to the audience often, Othello does not. This gives Iago a huge advantage - he can get the audience on his side.. he can bring us along on his journey, argue his points of view for our benefit, explain his actions so we'll see where he's coming from. No other character is afforded that opportunity. It's interesting because when my roommate saw the show the other day she mentioned that she was almost entirely on Iago's side. (She added she might have been completely on his side if her roommate hadn't been playing Desdemona) I found this kind of awesome because it proves that the audience wants to be let in - they want to be a part of this journey, and since Iago is the only one who reaches out, we might be swayed to his dark side.

I'd be interested to take an audience poll -- who do you feel for, root for, during the show? Iago? Othello? Desdemona? All of the above in different moments?

Whenever you work on a show you come in with certain ideas, and those ideas grow, shift, sometimes change completely, and always because of the people in the room. There were two relationships in this play that grew into something completely different from what I anticipated at the beginning of rehearsals and those were Des/Emilia and Des/Iago. Pre-rehearsal I would have said I am 100% closer to Emilia in this play than I am to Iago. Now, I would say that is the complete opposite. My Desdemona finds little comfort in Emilia - we're not very close, we don't see eye-to-eye on men, relationships, love, loyalty, and by the end of the show, I'm so emotionally exhausted that I can't put on a polite smile and entertain her insults towards my husband or her playful quips about cuckolding for the greater good. The one person I come to rely on is the last person I should -- Iago. He is there for me, emotionally, and purposefully, taking action to fix things with Othello, drying my tears, giving me strength. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I die never knowing Iago's true colors.

"It is the Cause.." Othello and Desdemona
The Desdemona I have found is faithful and trusting almost to a fault. "If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it/ To the last article." She loves fiercely, not just Othello, but Cassio and Iago. These men are part of her world because they are knitted to Othello and Othello is her world. Putting that much trust and love into others leaves one vulnerable. But even that vulnerability is my strength. As we say at Forum - "Love is the strongest choice," and I believe I have made love my choice, even in death.

"O, these Men, these men!"

Othello is full of passion, faith and loyalty. So much of it misplaced, and that is the true tragedy.

Photos: Courtesy of Meg Goldman

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