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.

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Love & games in Dauntless City Theatre’s delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Kate Werneburg & Chanakya Mukherjee. Photo and design by Dahlia Katz.

 

Dauntless City Theatre’s Bard in Berczy brings us a delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Adapted and directed by Eric Benson, Much Ado opened last night in Toronto’s Berczy Park (in St. Lawrence Market, with the cool dog-themed fountain).

We’re invited to gather near the Dauntless City sign (on the east side of the fountain) as the stage is set for this tale of love, games, jealousy and schemes. The ukulele-playing Balthazar (Holly Wyder) is our guide throughout this tale, as she leads us around the park to witness the various scenes unfold.

Returning home from war, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks), her sister Don John (Melanie Leon), and officers Benedick (Kate Werneburg) and Claudio (Ira Henderson) stop for some R&R at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina (Andrew Joseph Richardson) and his wife Innogen (Andrea Irwin). From the get-go, it’s clear that Claudio is smitten with their hosts’ son Hero (Chase Winnicky); and, as evidenced by their edgy, wit-filled banter, Benedick definitely has history with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Chanakya Mukherjee). Their mutual love professed, Claudio and Hero decide to marry, and the vacation gathering goes into wedding planning mode.

Emboldened by the love in the air, the Prince and her hosts hatch a plan to bring the stubborn Benedick and scornful Beatrice into a love match. Meanwhile, jealous of her sister’s station and affection for Claudio, Don John seeks a way to cause mischief and bring chaos to the upcoming nuptials. Her follower Borachio (Wilex Ly) concocts a plan to disgrace Hero, using his lover Margaret (Jordan Shore), in sight of Don Pedro and Claudio to make them think Hero was with him the night before the wedding. Chaos ensues, the wedding is abruptly called off at the altar—and the accidental apprehension of one of the culprits by the local constabulary, led by the bumbling Head Officer of the Watch Dogberry (Andrea Lyons) and her partner Verges (Erin Eldershaw), could make all the difference between tragedy and a happy ending.

This abridged adaptation (90 minutes, no intermission) brings the audience into the action as we follow the story scene by scene around the fountain, bridged by snatches of music (supplied by Wyder, with music direction by David Kingsmill) that call back to the action. The fact that most of the roles have been gender reversed in casting (except for Leonato, Innogen, Claudio and Borachio)—creating two same-sex male couples—offers a fresh, new look at familiar characters. And Leonato’s wife Innogen, who has no lines in the original script, has dialogue in this version—largely borrowed from Leonato and the Friar; this puts her in a much more active position in the problem-solving plans of her household.

Big shouts to the ensemble for a thoroughly enjoyable, intimate experience of this Shakespeare favourite. Werneburg and Mukherjee have great chemistry as Benedick and Beatrice, shifting from prideful, witty verbal combatants to love-struck, stammering romantic prospects. The stubborn scorn of romance melts away as their friends’ well-meaning prank blooms into the realization that they really do love each other. And Winnicky and Henderson are adorably sweet and bashful as the young lovers Hero and Claudio. The gender reversed casting and same-sex couples make for some interesting insights into societal assumptions of male and female behaviour. Women can be tough soldiers who scoff at romance, men can be empathetic and show their feelings, and love is love no matter what the equation.

Other stand-outs include Leon’s mean-spirited, sullen Don John. Seething with jealousy over that which she lacks, Don John does what she wants and consequences be damned—but finds her cruel trickery offering limited mirth and sport. And Lyons and Eldershaw bring on the comic relief big time as the hilarious, goofball leaders of the Watch—combining physical comedy with the malapropism-filled text to great effect and LOLs.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at Berczy Park until Aug 26, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:00 p.m. Admission is PWYC; gather around the Dauntless City sign and be prepared to move around the space to keep up with the action.

You can keep up with Dauntless City Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out Phil Rickaby’s great interview with Benson, Werneburg and Chanakya on Stageworthy Podcast.