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CSC’s Contemporary “Othello” is as Relevant as Ever

Review by Doug Iden of Othello: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

William Oliver Watkins and Courtney Lucien in “Othello”

Shakespeare returned to the Shakespeare Theater with a brilliant but somewhat jarring rendition of the classic tragedy Othello.  After three straight non-Shakespearean plays, it was refreshing to revisit the Bard.

Placed in a contemporary world, Othello, played by visiting actor William Oliver Watkins, tumbles from a war hero to a murderer while being manipulated by Iago (Nicholas Rose).   In the play, Shakespeare explores the poisonous impact of jealousy on people and how it can wreak havoc on their lives.  It is also a brilliant psychological study of duplicity and manipulation as Iago cons several characters into believing total fabrications.

Watkins as Othello transforms well from the strong, noble war hero who defies convention by marrying the daughter of incensed Senator Brabantio (Barry Hulholland) to a man obsessed with the certainty of his wife’s infidelity. Othello seems to value the loyalty and veracity of his troops over the love of his wife.  As Othello increasingly becomes enmeshed in his own rage and perceived assault on his pride, Watkins (as Othello) convincingly spirals into insanity as he rails against his circumstances, writhing on the floor as in a demonic possession.  It is only at the end of the play that Othello realizes that he has been duped by his prized lieutenant and tries to regain his original nobility.

Played with Machiavellian glee, Rose imbues Iago with an unctuous, mocking manner as he seeks revenge on Othello whom he believes tried to seduce his wife Emilia (Miranda McGee).  Iago also feels that he should have received a promotion which was given to Othello’s friend Cassio (Justin McCombs).  Rose struts across the stage as he smugly divulges his insidious plan to the audience and steals every scene he is in.  This is a key role because you must believe that Iago is capable of maneuvering people to his will without their knowledge or the play does not work.

The ultimate target of Othello’s volcanic rage is his wife, Desdemona, portrayed by Courtney Lucien.  Desdemona is alternately, shy and passive, then coquettish,  and finally in mortal terror of her husband. Desdemona and Emilia are friends but are oblivious of Iago’s murderous intentions. McCombs’ Cassio is a bit of an innocent who becomes a mark for Iago’s con and becomes a catalyst when Othello believes he has been cuckolded by his underling.

The play starts a little slowly but the pace certainly accelerates in the second act as the traps which Iago has laid come to fruition and the tragedy roars to its conclusion.

The staging, sets, lighting, costumes and visual effects are anything but traditional. The set, designed by Justen Locke, depicts a stark, dilapidated army barracks with rusting corrugated metal and peeling concrete with wires haphazardly strung along the walls. To add to the eerie, depressing illusion, periodic visual effects are flashed onto the walls showing television news anchors discussing the impending action. Similar illusions are flashed onto the floor showing the effects of a battle.  Half of the characters are dressed in pseudo-military garb with assault weapons while the others are wearing contemporary clothes, all designed by Amanda McGee. The military theme is both disquieting and symbolic since Venice represents a world power constantly at war but often stymied by inactivity. It’s that inactivity which exacerbates the tensions of the characters and, ultimately, allows them to be suborned.

The unusual vision of the play is the brainchild of director Christopher Edwards. The first few minutes of the play may be off-putting but give it a chance and the seeming disparate elements start to work well in tandem.

Othello has always been a controversial show due to its violent depiction of women and its racial content.  However, even though the play is 400 years old, the story could be ripped from today’s headlines.  Othello continues at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company theater through March 24.  The next production, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams runs from April 6 through April 28.