Play Review: “Othello”

UC San Diego’s theatre and dance department returns to the classics with a rousing adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

Director Dylan Key notes in his director’s statement that William Shakespeare’s “Othello” is “an expression of a particular man’s point of view in a particular time, […] brimming with questions and images which feel potently alive in the world today.” I am inclined to agree with this interpretation of one of the famed playwright’s more prickly pieces. Key keeps the essence of Shakespeare’s dialogue while paring down the set and attire, a nod toward modernist minimalism. It may be a cost-cutting measure, but the displacement works; “Othello” is just as affecting when reframed as a hipster party set, with both the heroes and villains clad in leather and chucks.

The story is much the same. The triumphant general Othello (DeLeon Dallas, playing magnanimous and mercurial all at once) is a happy man, wed to the lovely Desdemona (Claire Roberson). Dallas and Roberson effectively communicate the connubial bliss of a doomed couple. Since it’s Shakespeare, their joy is short-lived; Othello’s ensign, Iago (Kyle Hester), schemes to overturn his commander’s successes. Iago is a man that uses others, taking advantage of Desdemona’s hapless admirer Rodrigo (Max Singer) and her bigot father Brabantio (Brandon O’Sullivan), among others, and stringing them along to his own ends.

Like Shakespeare at the original Old Globe, Key works with a bare stage, empty of decorations save for a rickety second floor and occasional set piece (a table, chairs). He relies primarily on the energy and resolve of his actors, and to great effect. The cast is universally good — Hester is a particular standout, his Iago a self-aggrandizing murderer whose aims are as unknown to him as they are to us. He leers and simpers when appropriate, and pours poison into the ears of anyone who pauses to listen.

Key takes some liberties with the dressing: scenes are punctuated by moody, electronic sound clips, and the lighting from above drenches the cast in plaintive red and blue hues. In this way, the Theodore and Adele Shank Theater becomes a massive mood-board for its performers, a clever use of the space. In one sequence, the actors hang a set of lightbulbs across the stage to illuminate a dance party. The adaptation does occasionally falter; those same sound effects often bleed into or overshadow soliloquies and dialogue. During one party scene, the music blares out of the speakers, almost painfully loud. Nonetheless, aside from a few hiccups, the play rolls smoothly along. No actors flubbed their lines, and only a few stuttered.

This adaptation delves into the alienation and barely-concealed bigotry Othello experiences during his time amongst the Venetians. Key does not shy away from including the jeering language of Shakespeare’s original; Roderigo mockingly calls him “the thicklips,” and even the casting echoes Othello’s isolation, with DeLeon Dallas the only black performer onstage. Although “the moor” is an ambiguous character in both his ethnicity and race, he is maligned by Venetian society for his cultural otherness. “Othello” is, in many ways, a story concerned with how the ill-intentioned exploit social outsiders. Dallas’ performance stresses Othello’s exclusion and the anxiety that position brings on.

Key’s adaptation encompasses both the humor and the sorrow of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Light enough to provoke laughter, but ultimately ending in despair.

Grade: A-
Director: Dylan Key
Writer: William Shakespeare
Starring: DeLeon Dallas, Kyle Hester, Claire Roberson, Allyn Anthony Moriyon, Brandon O’Sullivan, Max Singer, Nicole Javier, Danielle E. B. Wineman, Enrico Nassi, David Price, Garrett Schulte
Runs: Feb. 21 – March 3
Location: Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre