The Gift Theatre. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With Kareem Bandealy, Michael Patrick Thornton, Brittany Burch, Jay Worthington. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Suzanne Scanlon
If you haven’t yet discovered the decade-old Gift Theatre on Chicago’s Northwest Side, their remarkable new production of Othello—the company’s first foray into Shakespeare—should definitely be your introduction. Director Jonathan Berry and a dazzling cast render Shakespeare’s problematic tragedy urgent in the Gift's very small space, with minimal set, stylized lighting and an audience so near to the players, we play witness to the unfolding events.
One strength of this production is how it’s a revelation of character and relationships. As the diabolical sociopath Iago, Gift artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton is magnetic; I was immediately drawn to him, even before I realized he was indeed the dark center of the play. Like any gifted sociopath, his charm belies his intentions. When he contemplates his plan, he takes a moment or two to look to us. We almost understand him—that is, until we realize how far he will go to destroy everyone around him.
Why is Iago so driven? It may be that he has been overlooked by the Moor, Othello (Kareem Bandealy), who favored Cassio (Jay Worthington), or that he loves Desdemona (lovely Brittany Burch)—though it’s hard to believe Iago is capable of love. Rather, his motivation is rooted in anger and injustice; unlike the fit, sculpted Othello, or the soldiers he parties with, Thornton's Iago is betrayed by his own body. In a wheelchair, his pleasure must come through transcending physical impotence, projecting his will on those around him. If he can’t sleep with Desdemona, he must destroy the one who does; “I hate the Moor,” he repeats, as if convincing himself. Neither powerful nor relevant, he acts instead through “double knavery” (i.e. some serious mind-fuckery) to destroy Othello.
The genius of Bandealy and Thornton in these roles is the understanding of bodies: not only the bodies that pile up by play’s end, but oft-invoked othered bodies: bestial, dark or female; bodies as “gardens” to tend and tame. We feel Othello's restraint in the face of bigotry; we see that he works to avoid acting out the monstrosity linked to him through various racist assumptions. Othello knows he must work extra hard to maintain his honor. Indeed, much of why his eventual downfall is so tragic is that his virtue has been linked to his calm. When Iago manages to drive him mad, we watch him become what he most feared; his once tranquil mind explodes in rage and despair, leaving us to wonder if it’s possible to transcend our fate, our temporal bodies.
In a play rooted in racist and misogynist tropes—the loss of a (white) daughter to a (dark) man all the more dangerous—the few women featured do much to find the integrity and power in their characters. Most moving is Emilia’s (Darci Nalepa) late speech to Desdemona, in which she considers the way women must negotiate their own power and pleasure within this rigid and inequitable system. Desdemona will have none of it, of course; she is nothing but chaste and pure. Like Juliet, her boundless love for Othello, even as he destroys her, is transcendent.
[Ed. note: Gift ensemble member Gabriel Franken, currently playing Roderigo, will take over from Thornton as Iago August 13–24.]