New Points of View: Shakespeare Forum's OTHELLO[S]

Antonio Disla as Iago and Ari Dalbert as Roderigo in Othello[s].  Photo courtesy of Allison Stock.

The Shakespeare Forum, founded and led by Sybille Bruun and Tyler Moss, has become one of the main hubs for classical artists in New York City.  Their work serves the NYC Shakespearean community: from twice weekly open workshops for actors, through to educational opportunities for students and adults. 

For the past several years, Forum - under the direction of Sybille Bruun - has also been presenting deconstructed productions of Shakespeare's greatest works.  From their avant-garde Titus in 2017, through to last year's Lear, which handed off the titular role between the cast, Bruun's experimental approach to Shakespeare's text can be a breath of fresh air for those familiar with the canon, as well as an exciting experience for the newcomer.

This year, Bruun brought us Othello[s] - a Rashomon-inspired exploration of Shakespeare's play of manipulation, murder and betrayal.  In this version, Bruun and her excellent acting ensemble present Othello through four(ish) points of view: Roderigo, Desdemona, Iago/Emilia and Othello. 

By pulling the strands of the play apart, returning to certain pivotal moments through the POV of another person's eyes, the audience is allowed to experience the play that is more immersive and empathetic than the original.

To paraphrase a snarky critic, Othello has been called "a lot of famous Shakespeare quotes surrounded by a plot."  For this reviewer, apart from the excellent Kenneth Branaugh/Laurence Fishburne 1995 film, I've rarely seen a production of Othello that actually pulled me in.  Perhaps, because the audience is "in" on Iago's manipulation the entire time, it's easy to simply think the title character a fool.  So that at least once - for example, at a production of Boston Common's Othello - I found myself laughing at Othello's plight by the end.  Not the reaction one might want to elicit from the audience!

However, by giving us four points of view, carefully arranged to widen the scope of the play for the audience, Bruun & Co. have managed to show how everyone in the play - even Iago - is subject to their own deception. 

The danger, if you will, of only believing the world as you have come to see it.

Othello[s] begins with Roderigo's point of view: a short, romantic, tragic story, inhabited primarily by Ari Dalbert as Roderigo and Antonio Disla as Iago.  (As in most of Bruun's experimental work, the ensemble trades off who plays what character throughout the night.  For the sake of this review, actors will be identified as to what tracks they played in each point of view.)

Roderigo is a young Venetian nobleman, hopelessly in love with the newly married Desdemona, and foolishly believing Iago who has promised to help Roderigo break up his love from her groom, Othello.  Played within Shakespeare's telling, Roderigo is typically played off as a clown: a comical foil who believes Iago; a would-be Sir Andrew Aguecheek to a less than trustworthy Sir Toby.

But when Roderigo's story is shown on its own - particularly without Iago's commentary to the audience, letting us in on his duplicitous nature - we're presented with a lovelorn man, unknowingly pressed into escapades he doesn't understand, until being ruthlessly, shockingly mowed down by the man he trusted most: his only friend, Iago.

Disla, a staple of Bruun's last three plays, acquits himself beautifully here, beginning with a moment of true (seeming) friendship with Dalbert's Roderigo, even while he dances over such red flag text as: "Drown cats and blind puppies."  Dalbert, no stranger to Shakespeare himself, is a commanding presence on stage, full of vigor and excellent command over the language.  He manages to keep Roderigo's bouncy naivete in tact, while also creating a truly tragic figure out of the role, worthy of a longer exploration.

In Desdemona's point of view, Kia Nicole Boyer takes the reins as Othello's new bride, finding a quiet authority in the role, that turns to confused desperation as Othello seems to strike her out of nowhere, and then enters to strangle his bride with what sound like mad ravings.  Desdemona's final, breathless line in answer to who did this to her, "No one.  I did it to myself," rings out all the more poignantly for only following the victim's point of view.  In this play, she has almost no contact with Iago - and what there is of it (played by Brian Linden in this iteration) is sweet, almost paternal.  Of course, she blames herself.  As victims too often do - without knowing all the machinery that set their doom in action.

Act Two begins with the point of view of Iago, played this time by Tyler Moss.  Since Othello, as Shakespeare wrote it, truly might be called Iago instead, the danger here might be to merely play the play as written.  Instead, Bruun has Moss go through each of Iago's soliloquies, deviating occasionally to bring in his wife, Emilia's points of contact, as well as a few of Othello's lines. 

But with the cast literally swirling around Iago, caught in a pool of light, center, and inhabited by Moss who brings heart, empathy, and aching honesty to every role he plays, we're forced to pity Iago...who truly believes his own lies and deceptions, and the hope that he's saving his friend.

For me, this was perhaps one of the greatest revelations.  Like Richard III, Iago is a manipulator who invites the audience through direct address to be privy to his every machination, the moment before he does it.  Almost - as written - there's a sense of taunting the audience to stop the speaker.  And yet, we never do.  However, by taking Iago out of his own play, and then by giving the role of Moss, Forum does what Forum does best: sees the humanity and would-be good of every person.  Even in the worst of us.

Lastly, we come to Othello, here played by Francis Mateo, with Sara Malinowski as his Desdemona, and Alica Kabia as his Iago.  Mateo and Malinowski are perfectly matched: Malinowski (who played Emilia for Boyer's Desdemona previously) finding her own tragic lady - one filled with humor and playfulness, life and vitality which we know will be all too soon snuffed out - while Mateo (who played Emilia for Moss' Iago) finds the humanity, the love, all the points of empathy for his Othello, so that we feel them, too. 

Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the moment when Othello strikes Desdemona.  The audience now knows it's coming.  We now know the events that led up to Iago manipulating Othello to falsely suspect his wife.  Othello strikes.  Desdemona draws back.  And for a moment, we see a flicker of regret - of doubt, even - in Othello's eyes.  Mateo managed to make us believe, for just a moment, that although we'd seen the tragedy play out three times already, this time would be different.

It's not, of course, and here praise must be given to Bruun's direction and her crew's team.  Bruun, who has played Desdemona herself, chose to stylize all the fights and the deaths, so that slaps were fingersnaps, sword strikes done by loud claps, and Desdemona's brutal suffocation performed first as the breaking of some tulip's stems, and then as the knotting of the bedsheets.  By stylizing the violence of the play, the audience and actors were not only kept safe (that is: no need to worry that Othello might actually harm his Desdemona), but we were also invited to feel the violence ourselves, to connect the dots throughout the entire performance, so that we absorbed the shock of every death.

Best of all, though, I'm thrilled that Bruun & Co. found a beautiful marriage of concept, play, and execution to illuminate one of Shakespeare's trickier texts.  This is the sort of thing that theatre ought to do, and I can't wait to see what Forum cooks up for us next.  Highly recommended.

Othello[s] plays through June 15 at The Shakespeare Forum at El Barrio Art Space, 215 East 99th Street, NYC.


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