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BWW Reviews: OTHELLO at the Stratford Festival is Tragic Yet Triumphant


Director Chris Abraham's production of OTHELLO opened to thunderous applause at Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre. The audience appeared so enthralled by this production that its devastatingly tragic nature seemed to cling to patrons as they exited the theatre. Simultaneously; however, there was a paradoxical sense of excitement and joy about what brilliance had just been witnessed.

One of Shakespeare's beloved tragedies, OTHELLO is the story of an intelligent, powerful, well-spoken and generally well-liked General of the Venice armies-who happens to be black. His race is significant in so much as it is way for him to be alienated and made to be seen as 'the other' by those such as Iago who are attempting to manipulate those around him and turn them against each other. In turn, this allows Othello to feel a sense of insecurity that perhaps allows him to let in some other weak emotions such as jealousy as well. As Iago continues to manipulate those around him, the play creeps closer and closer to the ultimate tragedy of good people dying for no reason at all.

Julie Fox's unique stage design and Michael Walton's lighting design, allow the production to move swiftly from scene to scene as if it is rapidly approaching its tragic conclusion. Like a ship in the storm-which at one point, the stage does replicate, the production thrashes about in an effective and fascinating fashion, from one scene to the next where each character's personal weaknesses and trust in Iago are exploited, whilst the play is always moving rapidly forward towards its tragic and seemingly inevitable conclusion. Iago is the Skipper of this ill-fated ship; navigating his way throughout the chaotic waves of jealousy and prejudice that he, if not creates, then certainly fosters in Othello and others. Iago himself does not seem to know exactly what will be the outcome of his scheming, but whilst in the middle of it, he seems to have complete control. It is only at the end that Iago too, becomes a powerless victim to his own plot.

Graham Abbey portrays Iago with a sociopathic charm that almost has you routing for his twisted plot to work. The audience knows Iago better than any other character in the play does, and it begins to become easy to at least partially see the other characters through his eyes. Characters like Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio are likeable, but at the same time, there is a thrill in seeing everything unravel because of Iago's desire to do just that, for seemingly no reason other than to create chaos by playing puppet master.

As the titular character, Dion Johnstone brings a sense of passion, intelligence, strength, kindness, charm, and a fleeting vulnerability to Othello in the first act, and as the play progresses, that vulnerability becomes less fleeting and eventually turns into an irrational jealous rage that encompasses all of his other strengths, and in fact using them for an unintentional evil. Its Othello's passion, power, charm, and intelligence, that allow him to maintain Desdemona's trust and love even as he begins to scare her with his seemingly unfounded jealousy. This in turn leads to her demise. Mr. Johnstone's portrayal is truly magical. He can tell a story with his eyes, and can convey the passion and the torture he is feeling as doubt and jealousy begin to overtake him.

As the loyal, loving, and tragic Desdemona, Bethany Jillard provides a heartbreaking portrayal of a woman so in love that she is trying to be understanding and forgiving of her husband even in the end when he kills her. She seems to be as heartbroken as she is afraid by the way her beloved husband is looking at her in her final scene. Ms. Jillard provides a three-dimensional performance of Desdemona that does not simply limit the character to the role of "victim". She does not come off as simply being weak, and perhaps is the strongest person in the entire play as her attempts to understand and forgive never falter. These are feats must more challenging than using doubt and jealousy to manipulate, or using brute strength to kill.

The entire cast is great in this production. Brad Hodder is charismatic and tragic as Michael Cassio, the good-hearted Lieutenant to Othello whose problem with alcohol is utilized by Iago to have him stripped of his rank, furthering Iago's overall plot. The tragedy in Cassio is the demon that is his struggle with alcohol. The way that his situation continues to unravel and get out of his own control depicts how alcohol can do that in many people's lives-one does not even need an Iago for this to occur. This is another example of how Iago feeds on the human weaknesses of those around him.

As the somewhat pathetic Roderigo, Mike Shara plays the fool well, and as Emilia, Iago's wife, and Desdemona's personal attendant, Deborah Hay is also excellent. Audience members who have already seen TAKING SHAKESPEARE will likely have an added appreciation for Emilia, as it is pointed out in that play that she has a line near the end of OTHELLO, that encapsulates a significant message and theme of the play. The idea that once someone reaches a moment of ultimate sadness, there is nothing that can hurt him or her. The idea that human beings can bear so much hurt and sadness in their lives and that this can make them strong. This feeling of extreme sadness for characters like Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello is a powerful thing for the audience as well. After all, this play is in essence a cautionary tale about 'othering' and nothing reminds us of our connection as human beings more than empathy. The emotions displayed in Othello are extreme, but they are also relatable.

When the play is over, as they actors take their final bows, there is a powerful moment shared between the cast and the audience. The lights do not completely go up, and the cast remains somber, yet appreciative of the audience reaction. This seems very appropriate, as it is often jarring for the mood to so suddenly be altered after such a devastating play. This seemed to be a strong and fitting way to close out the show.

OTHELLO is excellent from start to finish. A true triumph for director Chris Abraham, the creative team, and the cast. It runs at the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre until October 19th.

Photo Credit: Michael Cooper

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