I got to see Othello for the first time at the CalShakes outdoor theater in Orinda. My third time out there–I saw Romeo and Juliet a few years back and King Lear last year (my first time for that play too–I know, I don’t keep up with the classics so well, but what can I say, my PhD is in Icelandic lit from 800+ years ago–no time for the newbies…). The aesthetic of the CalShakes productions seems to be a sort of deconstructed, industrial feel–or maybe that’s just what they do whenever they hear I’m coming I don’t know. In any case, I’ve enjoyed it a lot.
Their treatment of Othello was especially minimalist–everyone sat in a circle, and those not in the scene stayed seated, while those speaking would at times look at, or circle those they spoke of. I thought it was a neat way to visualize the network of relationships as they shifted with the progressing plot. Dress was contemporary, and Aldo Billingslea (professor at Santa Clara University), who played Othello, wore a hoodie–whether this had been done yet I don’t know, but it was only a matter of time, and I thought it fit well with CalShakes’ usual way of doing things. Some of the additional bits may grate some listeners–several spoken bits added (like wikipedia-style info re: one of the sites, other random bits), occasional use of live video projected above the stage, and, right at the climatic, final moment, they broke for audience discussion. The latter is the only bit that I was bothered by, but not because it was necessarily a bad idea, and it certainly fit with what they were trying to do with the play–I just hate giving random adults a chance to talk. Which sounds bad I guess, but, well, the teacher in me just prefers working with folks who understand themselves as students and don’t have an inflated sense of their own contribution… ah, well, more likely I think it’s just that I hate being in a classroom that I’m not running, haha.
In any case–I recommend this production, at least if you are someone who can handle stripped-down Shakespeare. The play itself is already so appropriate for the #BLM lens they were going for that some might feel some of the additions edged towards preachy, but I think they come off as valid dressing.
And it is such a beautiful theater–come early for the food and booze, both of which I recommend, and picnic underneath the eucalyptus before the play starts. And they often have talks beforehand as well, though I’ve never been to those. Probably great though, I’m sure.
Hm, it occurs to me I sometimes suggest parallels in Old Norse literature when I review books, movies, etc–like my discussion of valkyries and their lovers after watching Kubo. Shakespeare isn’t as far off from my field as one might think–Hamlet is after all based in part on Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus’ History of the Danes. The tragic love story of Othello, where (spoiler alert) the general is convinced that his wife has been cheating on him with, um, well, tragic results, could I guess be compared to Ermanaric’s execution of his son, and later his young wife Svanhildr, daughter of the famed Sigurðr of the Völsung cycle (Prose Edda has a version of this), after they were falsely accused of having an affair. Of course the romance in Othello seems legit, while Ermanaric is pretty much a dirty old man who screws everything up (OK, maybe I’m projecting modern sensibilities on the text a bit…), so I don’t recommend anyone push the parallel too far…