Curio Theatre Company offers a unique interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy in its current version of OTHELLO. Whereas the visuals are stark, the predominant mood of the production is one of chicanery rather than the dire gravity that is usually associated with the work.
Paul Kuhn’s set, in the Calvary Center’s small-scale underground Corner Stage, is minimal and intimate, seating the audience within inches of the actors and allowing a clear focus on Othello’s tale without the distraction of a grandiose design. A blood red curtain in a faux-marbre wooden surround and a carved antique-style chair serve as the only indicators of the Venetian locale of Act I; an actual staircase in the basement venue (revealed when the curtain is ripped away), two storage trunks, and a bed signal the relocation of the story to its continuation, and its deadly conclusion, in Cyprus. Aetna Gallagher brings the era to life with her lavish period-inspired costumes, maintaining a visual accord with the historical 16th-century backdrop of Shakespeare’s narrative and his Elizabethan language, while Dan Ison’s sound evokes the violent storm at sea, and a few integral props (a letter, a handkerchief, bottles of wine and copper cups, daggers and swords) reinforce the major plot points.
Director Dan Hodge, whose program notes indicate that he does not find “a pat story of good and evil” to be “interesting or satisfying,” presents “a morally ambiguous world” by playing a good part of the tragedy for laughs and accentuating a comedic reading of many of the characters, their despicable acts, and their famous lines (even though, with a running time of two hours and 40 minutes including an intermission, some of the most noteworthy have been cut). The result of his original take has more the feel of a farcical comedy than an ironic tragedy, which elicited continuing bursts of laughter from the appreciative opening night audience, right up to the play’s devastating climax.
In Hodge’s less menacing version, the minor role of the clown (who, in Shakespeare’s script, appears only briefly in two scenes in Cyprus) is eliminated, but his foolishness is conflated with the character of Roderigo (and Paul Kuhn plays the fool with gusto); the wives Desdemona (Isa St. Clair) and Emilia (Rachel Gluck) are more stridently feminist than pained and oppressed (perhaps a bit of an anachronism, even in the relatively progressive Venetian Republic of the time); Cassio (Eric Scotolati) is a risible womanizer and easy drunk; and Iago (Brian McCann)—one of the most heinous villains in the history of the theater–is a laughably conniving trickster, not a thoroughly sinister psychopath. Only Othello (Steve Wright) displays the fateful mistrust and rage that are traditionally associated with the titular role of the Moorish outsider, who is the butt of the Venetian’s bigoted jokes and vengeful plot, as he is reduced from a dignified and respected military leader to a violently jealous husband and duped murderer.
Though Shakespeare certainly understood the need for some humorous passages to alleviate the overwhelming darkness of the drama, does this lighter and more ambiguous tone give credibility to the characters’ motivations and justify the body count at the catastrophic outcome, or is it “out of joint” with Shakespeare’s “foregone conclusion”? Though presenting a novel approach to a well-known classic, this funnier interpretation seems more a case of Othello Lite than The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (the full title of the play’s first published quarto edition of 1622), by tempering too much of the tragedy with an excess of comedy. But maybe that’s the true beauty of Shakespeare’s universality; it is open to personal interpretation, and we can each find in it what we need and what we will. [Calvary Center, Corner Stage, 4740 Baltimore Ave.] February 12-March 14, 2015; curiotheatre.org.