Shakespeare’s Othello
Photo: Kevin Berne

Shakespeare’s Othello

The fear of outsiders.

Directed by Eric Ting
Starring Aldo Billingslea, James Carpenter, Liz Sklar
California Shakespeare Theater, Orinda California
Until October 9, 2016

What is it about the human psyche that makes us willing to believe the most insidious and hateful lies about someone else, even one closest to us? Is it because accepting the worst in another makes us feel better about ourselves? Or do such lies satisfy a devious part of ourselves? If we might cheat, are we more willing to believe that others would? Or is it simply envy of those who, by virtue of talent, courage, hard work or luck, have achieved what we have not.

Shakespeare explored this aspect of human nature in 1603. Eric Ting, newly appointed Artistic Director of Cal Shakes, and talented director of “Othello,” shows us that many of our fundamental traits have not improved in the intervening 413 years. Consequently, the Venetians in “Othello” fear and distrust the Moor, despite his noble character and vital contributions to his adopted country, just as many Americans today still fear and reject outsiders. To bring Ting’s point home, at intermission, we hear the voice of Donald Trump bellowing about excluding Muslims from this country.

This uniquely ultramodern and ultimately satisfying production of “Othello” begins with actor Lance Gardner (who plays Cassius) giving a slightly uncomfortable but sometimes amusing standup routine that is predominately about race. Then the actors introduce themselves by their first names with an accompanying “number” and their roles. There is no set and the costumes are casual modern dress, complete with Othello in a hoodie. Even the bucolic greenery usually visible behind the stage is covered. The actors sit on numbered wooden chairs in a circle until it is time for them to play their part. They then rise and interact with the other actors in the scene. The use of video cameras and large screen signs are used as political and ideological additions to the play. However, the combination of all these stage and set devices ultimately detracts from the emotional core of the drama.

The minimal set and street clothing make the actors’ work that much harder. We have nothing on which to focus except their words and actions. They have to carry the drama, including its emotional power, stripped bare of virtually all visual context. Even their actions are suppressed because of the proximity of the seated actors and empty chairs. At times I felt as though I was listening to a podcast instead of watching a play. But the actors generally overcame this disability, particularly in the second Act, as the tale of Othello and Desdemona’s love, Iago’s instigation and manipulation of Othello’s jealousy and the lovers’ tragedy unfold.

Aldo Billingslea (the lead in “Fences”) gave a forceful and stirring performance as Othello, although at times I wished that his diction were a bit clearer and slower so that we could appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. One of his finest soliloquies had been cut short. So we only heard a portion of the speech that begins, “Her father loved me; oft invited me;” in which Othello described how his fascinating life story wooed Desdemona. I confess that, as a former student of Shakespearean writing, I enjoy a bit of the ham in Shakespearean actors. Modern productions, including Cal Shakes’ “Othello,” seem to focus more on moving the plot along than on the affecting recitation of the soliloquies and the emotions of the characters.
As Iago, James Carpenter (Beatrice, in “Much Ado about Nothing”), a fine actor, seemed uncharacteristically stiff, as he only occasionally displayed the evil menace beneath Iago’s smooth exterior. Liz Sklar acted Desdemona very well, and Julia Eccles was outstanding in her very moving performance as Iago’s long-suffering wife Emilia.

At the dramatic conclusion of the play, at Othello’s realization of his mistaken jealousy, and just before his suicide, the play stopped, and the actors asked for questions and comments from the audience! Huh? What were they thinking? This interruption ruined for me the final poignant moments of the tragedy. It’s a shame, because I was mostly sympathetic with Eric Ting’s vision of Othello as the outsider and his overall direction until that moment. Despite this, I recommend Cal Shakes’ “Othello.”

Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for