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A blistering “Othello” finds rare new intensity at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Just when you might be convinced there is nothing more to be said or done with Shakespeare’s mighty tragedy, “Othello” — whether as a play, a ballet, an opera or a film — along comes British director Jonathan Munby’s utterly faithful yet endlessly revelatory production for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Crystal clear, and shot through with military-generated testosterone that finds its counterpoint in several intriguingly played female characters, Munby has given us a thoroughly modern, meticulously cohesive, consistently engrossing take on the play without ever overreaching in his countless reminders of how Shakespeare is indeed “our contemporary.”

James Vincent Meredith is Othello and Bethany Jillard is Desdemona in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Othello." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

James Vincent Meredith is Othello and Bethany Jillard is Desdemona in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “Othello.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

He gives us a wedding first. It is a scene only talked about in the play, but we see it for real here. Othello (James Vincent Meredith, measured and easy of bearing, and then quickly unhinged) is the imposing Moorish general in the Venetian army — a striking man in middle age who kneels beside Desdemona (the imposing Bethany Jillard, who brings an unusual degree of sexual energy to the role), the elegant blond beauty who is daughter of a rich and powerful senator. It is a private ceremony, with the vows administered by a Catholic priest, so clearly Othello has relinquished ties to his own religion. And by marrying without the formal consent of her father, Desdemona has asserted an independence that breaks with custom. Both are (excuse the pun) somewhat unmoored, even as they are joined in marriage.

The modern setting is clear from the start thanks to designer Alexander Dodge’s super-sleek facade of the upscale Venetian apartment building where Desdemona’s father (David Lively) lives, and where he rages after receiving the news. And already Iago (Michael Milligan, whose wildly coiled, knowingly evil and compulsively driven portrayal is the furious engine of this production) is plotting to destroy the general — masquerading as his ever-honest friend and confidante, and dripping poison at every turn. As Iago tells the nerdy, malleable Roderigo (Fred Geyer), who has a crush on Desdemona, he will get revenge for being passed over for a promotion in favor of Cassio (Luigi Sottile), a young, handsome lieutenant. Adding fuel to his fire is his belief that Othello may have slept with his wife, Emilia (the ever-astonishing Jessie Fisher).

Then comes news that the Turks have invaded the island of Cyprus (the geography could not be more custom-made for this moment), and Othello is ordered to command the Venetian army there, with Desdemona vowing to accompany him.

The preliminary meeting in the war room is another brilliant touch by Munby — a scene fit for the European Union era, complete with an easily commanding woman as the Duke of Venice (Melissa Carlson, excellent in a brief but telling casting flip). In another brilliant touch, Munby makes Emilia a member of the military, too, serving with her husband. Dressed in camouflage, with none of the glamor of Desdemona, she exudes the subtlest hint of the approval-seeking Lynndie England, the soldier who snapped photos of abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

‘OTHELLO’

Highly recommended

When: Through April 10

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater,

800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: $48 – $88

Info: (312) 595-5600;

http://www.chicagoshakes.com

Run time: 2 hours 55 minutes,

with one intermission

Once in Cyprus, Iago sets to work on fully destroying Othello and Desdemona, whispering the most unhinging lies and innuendos to both the general and others, and manipulating his strong but love-starved wife, Emilia, whose task is to watch over Desdemona. Mostly Iago suggests that Desdemona is being unfaithful with Cassio, although the fellow is more like her much-needed and familiar best friend from Venice.

Making a crucial difference here is the way Munby (with help from Dodge and the rest of his superb design team) plants us so fully in the midst of the highly-charged, supremely macho world of an army base, complete with container-style barracks that become the bathroom, mess hall and dormitory for pumped up men who can easily drink too much and lose their temper in a flash. Desdemona’s isolation is palpable here. So is Cassio’s inability to drink, or to resist peer pressure — a scene played beautifully and truthfully by Sottile.

Luigi Sottile plays Cassio and Michael Milligan is Iago in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Othello." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Luigi Sottile plays Cassio and Michael Milligan is Iago in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “Othello.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

In supporting roles there is notable work from Laura Rook as Bianca, a self-possessed Greek Cypriot prostitute in love with Cassio; Bret Tuomi as the governor of Cyprus, and James Krag as the delegate from Venice appalled by what he sees in this tale of love, sex, jealousy, betrayal, the driving insecurity of men, the sad acquiescence of women, the imbalance of the outsider and the many forces that can lead to crimes of passion.

Fred Geyer is Roderigo and Michael Milligan is Iago in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Othello." (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Fred Geyer is Roderigo and Michael Milligan is Iago in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “Othello.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

NOTE: Two days before seeing the CST production I caught the Hamburg Ballet in choreographer John Neumeier’s feverish dance version of “Othello” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. More ritualistic and phantasmagorical in approach, it featured several astonishing, powerfully envisioned pas de deux, including rapturously sensual ones between Othello (Amilcar Moret Gonzalez) and Desdemona (Helene Bouchet), and a deeply disturbing, altogether mind-blowing one for Iago (Ivan Urban) and Emilia (the altogether amazing Carolina Agüero) that was performed to breathtaking effect.