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.

Toronto Fringe: The man. The ego. The outsider. Orson Welles meets Shylock in the compelling Orson Welles/Shylock

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The Shylock Project is in town from Syracuse, NY with a Toronto Fringe run of Orson Welles/Shylock, written and directed by Matt Chiorini, in the Factory Theatre studio.

Structured as a docu-fantasy radio play, Orson Welles/Shylock is a multimedia, largely verbatim theatre piece that incorporates quotes, reviews, interviews and text from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, as well as projection effects and film footage of Welles in an impromptu performance of Shylock’s famous soliloquy on a beach at sunrise.

Featuring a cast of four actors, including Chiorini, Brittany Fayle, Drew Gripe and Vincent Randazzo – who each play several characters, including Welles at various ages – we get a brief history of Welles’ career. His mother started reading Shakespeare to him when he was a preschooler, and by the time he was 18, he was starting to produce, direct, write, adapt and star in his own productions, starting with theatre and moving to filmmaking. An outsider in Hollywood, and pretty much anywhere he went, he found a particular resonance with Shylock. He created a large body of work, but much of it was left unfinished due to financing issues, the most notable of which was his 1960 made for TV version of The Merchant of Venice, which stopped production when CBS pulled its financing. Only a small portion of the footage remains, as Welles reported it was later stolen.

The four-person cast does a stellar job portraying Welles throughout his career, from the brash, fearless rookie of an 18-year-old, to middle-aged titan, to the aging veteran forced to take acting jobs to subsidize his own projects (and thankful he didn’t do Love Boat). Encouraged and praised from a very young age, there was nothing he couldn’t do. A workaholic with a huge ego, demanding standards and a razor-sharp wit, he eschewed any editorial hands on his work but his own. But throughout it all, like Shylock was in Venice, but not of Venice – Welles was in the industry but not of the industry. An outsider till his death at 70, we get various portraits of him from a number of review clips, quotes and interviews; and one gets the impression that – like his most famous film character Charles Foster Kane – few, if any, really knew him at all. And his Shylock soliloquy is heartbreaking.

The man. The ego. The outsider. Orson Welles meets Shylock in the compelling Orson Welles/Shylock.

Orson Welles/Shylock continues at the Factory Theatre Studio, with three more performances: today (Thurs, July 7) at 4 p.m.; Sat, July 9 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sun, July 10 at 12:00 p.m. These guys aren’t local, so catch them while they’re still here. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.