Hearts & minds poisoned to a tragic conclusion in Shakespeare BASH’d powerful, intimate, thought-provoking Othello

Front: E.B. Smith & Catherine Rainville. Back: James Graham. Photo by Jonas Widdifield.

 

Toronto favourite Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2018-19 season with a deep-dive into one of the most complex, messily human plays in the Shakespeare canon: Othello. Directed by James Wallis, assisted by Olivia Croft, and featuring a stellar cast, Othello opened last night for a short run this week at The Monarch Tavern. Before our eyes, hearts and minds are poisoned—and deeply human flaws exposed—along the way to a tragic finale in this intimate, powerful production.

Right off the top, Iago (James Graham) plants seeds of doubt and unrest, playing on sentiments of racism, prejudice and misogyny as, from the shadows and with the aid of the jealous, entitled Roderigo (Jeff Dingle, bringing comic relief in a goofy turn as the foolish would-be suiter), drops the bomb on Venetian senator Brabantio (played with candid self-righteous anger tinged with heart-wrenching resignation by David Mackett) that Othello (E.B. Smith), a general with the Venetian army, and his daughter Desdemona (Catherine Rainville) have had carnal knowledge of each other. Iago won’t stand for Othello’s glorified station as a respected, successful general and especially objects to Cassio’s (Dylan Evans) recent promotion over him; and Roderigo wants Desdemona for himself. Seething with resentment and jealousy over men who have that which they do not, both have their minds set on vengeance and scheme to claim that which they feel belongs to them.

Smugly, even gleefully, relating his plans throughout, the cunning Iago speaks directly to us as he maps out how, step by step, he intends to turn Othello against Cassio and Desdemona, all the while using the foolish Roderigo as his own personal bank account and sidekick, and his trusting wife Emilia (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), who serves Desdemona, as an unwitting accomplice. And all while pretending to be everyone’s friend and confidante.

Poisoning hearts and minds by playing on people’s deepest fears, prejudices and weaknesses, as well as their egos—all the while dropping pearls of apt wisdom on his respective targets—Iago manipulates and orchestrates a falling out between Othello and his friend/second in command Cassio, and gradually makes Othello distrust Desdemona’s fidelity, which he inflames by encouraging Cassio to turn to Desdemona to speak on his behalf to Othello. And that damned handkerchief—a treasured gift from Othello to Desdemona, left behind by her and found by Emilia, who gives it to Iago to please him—becomes the last straw when it is found in Cassio’s chambers. Tormented by rage and despair over his belief that Desdemona has been untrue with his best friend Cassio, that seemingly small thing pushes Othello past the edge of reason, with dire and tragic results.

A powerful, compelling performance from Smith as the tragic hero Othello; a soldier’s soldier, forced by systemic racism and oppression to constantly prove himself as a man and as a general, Othello’s great love for Desdemona becomes his downfall as Iago’s machinations work on his jealousy and sense of honour; and even more importantly, his doubts of deserving her as his partner and equal. Rainville exudes a quiet, but luminous, presence as the loyal, tender Desdemona; eschewing social mores and risking the condemnation of her family and friends, Desdemona courageously and authentically follows her heart to be with Othello. Drawn together in a relationship of mutual ‘otherness’—Othello navigating racism and Desdemona dealing with misogyny—he loves her gentle generosity of spirit and she his bravery and perseverance.

Graham is entitled sociopathic perfection as the cunning, vengeful Iago; kind to be cruel as weaves his web of fake news, mistrust and hatred among good, trusting people, Iago is the diabolical puppet master of the tragic tale. Dzialoszynski is both delightful and heartbreaking as Iago’s sassy, witty and neglected wife Emilia; longing to please her husband and, without malice, she becomes an unknowing accomplice in the tragic events that unfold between Othello and Desdemona. And Evans is adorably boyish and cocky as the eager, ambitious young Cassio; flawed and foolish in his own way, Cassio’s reputation and bromance with Othello are tarnished when he fails to govern his wayward behaviour—and his careless treatment of lover Bianca (a playful turn from Natasha Ramondino) signals a man boy with some growing up to do.

Great work all around from this outstanding cast, which also features Melanie Leon (as the stalwart Montana, Othello’s predecessor in Cyprus), Wilex Ly (the fastidious Lodovico) and Julia Nish-Lapidus (the politically apt Duchess and the hilarious drunken party girl Clown).

Just like The Merchant of Venice continues to spark debate over being an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semitism, so too does Othello have at its core the debate of racist play vs. a play about racism. No matter which side of the debate you’re on, there’s no doubt that these plays both reveal, in a very raw and human way, the ways in which the elite dominant culture—in this case, white Christian males—wields its own sense of entitlement and keeps a tight grip on power as it keeps the ‘other’ in their place through systemic oppression based on religion, race and gender. (Sound familiar?) And the sad truth that even good men can be pushed too far, with serious and tragic consequences.

Othello continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 10; it’s a super short run and an intimate venue—and they’re already sold out—but if you get there early and get on the wait list, you may just luck out and find yourself a seat.

Check out this great interview on the debate on Othello being a racist play or a play about racism with actors Smith and Rainville by Arpita Ghosal on Sesaya.

Advertisements

Real & virtual worlds collide in the chilling, mind-blowing The Nether

Hannah Levinson & David Storch. Set and lighting design by Patrick Lavender. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Production warning: While nothing graphic whatsoever happens onstage, The Nether has violent and sexually explicit content, including rape, murder, suicide and pedophilia, that may be deeply disturbing to some. Please be advised.

Coal Mine Theatre joins forces with Studio 180 Theatre, opening its 5th season last night, taking us to a shocking virtual reality world with its Toronto premiere of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, directed by Peter Pasyk. Part crime procedural, part sci-fi thriller, The Nether explores the dark side of human desire, asking us: Are pedophilia, rape and murder, committed with impunity in an online world, truly victimless? And should these online crimes be punishable in the offline world?

The Nether is the evolution of the Internet in not too distant future; an virtual online world that provides access to “realms” of education, work and fantasy role play on a level never seen before. In a world where trees, grass and plants—aspects of nature we take for granted—are rare and costly, The Nether provides access to startlingly realistic environments that engage all of the senses; and the chance to become anyone you want via an avatar persona. It is here that Sims (David Storch) has created The Hideaway, a stately, secluded Victorian home placed in a pastoral setting lush with trees and a garden. Presenting himself as Papa to his virtual guests and employees, he plays host to those who, like himself, have certain proclivities that would be considered heinously criminal in the “offline” world. The Hideaway is a pedophile playground, where adult guests may interact with, rape and murder children with complete impunity. After all, Sims argues, these aren’t “real” children, so no crime has been committed; and his realm provides a service in that it keeps pedophiles from realizing their desires in the real world as they satisfy their hunger online.

Nether law enforcement Detective Moss (Katherine Cullen) would disagree and has taken Sims in for interrogation. [Mini-spoiler alert] As part of the investigation, undercover agent Woodnut (Mark McGrinder) infiltrates The Hideaway as a guest, to witness first-hand the goings-on there. Woodnut spends a great deal of time with Iris (Hannah Levinson), a girl of about 12 and Papa’s favourite. Eerily life-like and possessing of an old soul, Iris is aware of her role as child victim; she is patient and encouraging with newbie Woodnut, who is bashful and hesitant to fully play out the game, assuring him that she resurrects after each murder.

Moss also questions Doyle (Robert Persichini), a high school science teacher and former guest at The Hideaway who claims to know nothing about Sims’ motives and plans, but whose troubled demeanour suggests that he’s hiding something. He does confess to Moss that he wants to “cross over”—leave the offline world behind and live out the rest of his life completely online. Referred to as “shades,” those who set out to do so must make arrangements for life support for their corporeal bodies in the real world—and Moss is alarmed at the prospect, warning Doyle that these supports aren’t as advertised.

What’s critical for Moss’s investigation is that the characters at The Hideaway are not computer programs or AI constructs—they are avatars with a person behind them. And while Sims insists that he fastidiously vets all participants to ensure adult-only entry, Moss believes that his realm is far from victimless.

Gripping, laser-focused work from the cast in this haunting tale of a fascinating and disturbing new world—all the more troubling as it’s not too far into the future. Cullen gives an edgy, driven performance as Moss; determined to get to the truth at nearly any cost, Moss also has her own demons to tame. Storch delivers a razor sharp, complex pair of characters: the cool, clever virtual entrepreneur Sims, and the playful, warm father figure Papa. Masterfully compartmentalizing his offline and online lives, Sims rationalizes his creation by positing that he keeps pedophiles off the streets, but appears to struggle with personal attachments of his own in The Hideaway.

Levinson is a precious, likable smarty pants as Iris; playful, curious, observant and empathetic, Iris begins to question her world, putting her position at risk. Persichini gives a deeply poignant performance as the troubled Doyle; a sharply intelligent and profoundly lonely and sad man, Doyle longs to be in a world where he is loved and feels a sense of belonging. Nicely layered work from McGrinder as the kind, conflicted Woodnut; entering The Hideaway to investigate, he finds himself strangely drawn to this world—and must come to grips with the personal feelings that emerge while in this undercover position.

The ensemble is nicely supported by compelling, atmospheric design elements, from Patrick Lavender’s startling, transporting set and lighting design, to Michelle Bohn’s mix of period and futuristic costumes, and Richard Feren’s spooky, game-like sound design.

It’s a lot to process—and raises important moral and ethical questions about the power of technology to transport, entertain and engage. Would a realm such as The Hideaway keep society safe in that rapists, murderers and pedophiles could enact their dark desires only online? Or would it serve as a dress rehearsal for the real thing or convert those who’ve never considered such atrocities? And if you believe that behaviour is shaped by thought, is there really such a thing as a victimless crime in any world?

The Nether continues at Coal Mine Theatre until November 4; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out cast and crew interview videos on the Coal Mine website.