This month, in a fine confluence of events connected to Shakespeare 400 Chicago — the celebration honoring the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death — two very different versions of the same story will be on view.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre will mount “Othello,” in a production staged by the British director Jonathan Munby and starring Chicago actor James Meredith in the title role. And Germany’s Hamburg Ballet will present two performances of John Neumeier’s full length dance version of “Othello” at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
Here is a closer look at both:
When: Feb. 18 – April 10
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier
Tickets: $48 – $88
Info: (312) 595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com
This is not the first time James Meredith has played Othello — the triumphant Moorish general in the Venetian army who secretly marries the much younger Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator, and falls prey to the tragic manipulations of his trusted but treacherous ensign, Iago. In fact, it is his fourth time in the role — the last one being in 2007, at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre.
But, in an example of radical retooling, Meredith arrives at Chicago Shakespeare directly on the heels of three years on the road in the national touring company of “The Book of Mormon,” in which he portrayed Mafala Hatimbi, father of the story’s heroine, and patriarch of an Ugandan village.
“The great thing about doing ‘Mormon’ was that I got to see the country, and my wife and I traveled from the start with our just-born son, Evan, who is now three,” said Meredith, now happily back in his Oak Park home. “But I’ve missed the rehearsal process.”
“It’s not often you get to do a role like Othello more than once, even if more often than not you get to the end of a run and just think, ‘now I know how I’ll do it next time.’ And it has been great to work with Jonathan [Munby, who has worked often at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company], who takes his time exploring each scene with moment-to-moment specificity, and holds off on doing a full run until the very last-minute.”
Munby’s production gives “Othello” a present-day setting, and as Meredith put it: “You will have the feel of a big American city, with familiar armed forces on stage. And the story will have a lot to say about now. The important thing is that on some level it’s a thriller, so it must move quickly. And where before I saw this as a tale of jealousy, betrayal and the outsider, I now think of it more as a love story, and how the perceived loss of that blinding love — just the mention of infidelity — became so monumental.”
“Of course I will always have qualms about this character,” admitted the actor, who has found bits and pieces of performances by many other actors, from James Earl Jones to Adrian Lester, on YouTube. “But I would loved to have seen Paul Robeson in the role when he toured to Chicago in the play in the early 1940s.”
When: February 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Hamburg Ballet at
Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph
Tickets: $35 – $125
Choreographer John Neumeier’s fascination with “Othello” began back in 1973, when, at 31, he had just started as director of the Hamburg Ballet. He commissioned the score for a full-length ballet but wasn’t satisfied with it and cancelled the project. Then, four years later he staged Verdi’s opera, “Otello,” in Munich.
It wasn’t until 1985, inspired by the great open space of a former factory turned performance venue in Hamburg, that he finally created (and designed) his dance version, which he subsequently has adapted for proscenium stages.
“I conceived this ‘Othello’ as a very intimate drama rather than a spectacle – one that concentrated on the story’s five or six main characters,” said Neumeier. “And rather than thinking of it scene-by-scene I tried to see it as a whole — an exploration of how it is impossible to fully know the inside of another person, and how the insecurity that comes with that can open you up to manipulation by someone else.”
“In Shakespeare’s play everything happens very quickly — the secret marriage in Venice, and Desdemona’s arrival in Cyprus, which is very much a man’s world, with a military situation about which she has no point of reference. And the ballet starts with the images they have of each other: Desdemona sees Othello as the warrior whose stories are full of danger, while he sees her as a sort of Botticelli virgin. But both these images are false in a way. When Othello gives Desdemona the gift of a handkerchief it is a gesture of great vulnerability, so that handkerchief becomes a crucial part of a pas de deux, and more.”
“My version of ‘Othello’ is really a choreographic mosaic – timeless in its setting, and with a score that ranges from Renaissance and Brazilian folk music, to work by [the modernist Russian-German composer] Alfred Schnitke and [contemporary Estonian] Arvo Part.”