For those reluctant to attend a Shakespeare play, Synthetic Unlimited’s current presentation of “Othello” should lessen their hesitation — the production is modern, accessible and well done. Two characters are even reworked as female rather than the usual male portrayal.
“Othello” explores the very contemporary issues of love, jealousy, racism, honesty and evil — apparently nothing has changed in human nature since Shakespeare wrote this play in approximately 1603, based on an Italian story published in 1565. The main characters are Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army; his new wife, Desdemona; his lieutenant, Cassio; his ensign, Iago; and Iago’s wife, Emilia. Iago is furious that Othello promoted Cassio rather than Iago to be Othello’s lieutenant and vows to cause hurt to Othello. Iago does this by cunningly creating in Othello a jealous belief that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Because Iago slyly portrays himself as trustworthy, the naïve Othello believes the lies and orders Iago to kill Cassio while Othello himself kills Desdemona. Eventually, Iago’s deceit is revealed, and Othello realizes that Desdemona was virtuous, so Othello then kills himself. In great theatrical tragedies, as in great operatic tragedies, the stage is left quite bloody.
However, directors Jimmy McCammon and Grace Fae’s contemporary setting of “Othello,” employing cell phones and video conferencing for some communications and using guns and violence to settle perceived wrongs, underscores the modern nature of the play’s issues.
There is a minimum set. Instead, the stairs and walkways of the theater area in The Stonehouse are cleverly used to display the action with a large, elevated screen utilized for exhibiting the video images and voices of the aristocratic characters and, for fun, a newscaster. The spare set allows the drama to develop smoothly and briskly.
The only scene that drags is when Othello is on stage alone, listening on his cell phone to a long, off-stage conversation between Iago and Cassio that Iago stages to convince Othello that Cassio has bedded Desdemona. It would have been more dynamic and visually interesting if the audience could see Iago and Cassio conversing with Othello eavesdropping.
Harold Bordenave portrays a convincingly angry Othello, encouraged in his rage by the deceitful Iago, alternately charming and menacing as performed by Jimmy McCammon. Leah Kaplan is wonderfully radiant and then believably devastated as the in-love Desdemona, wrongly accused of infidelity. Casey Burke’s Cassio is upright and honest, even when unreasonably stripped of his position as Othello’s lieutenant. And Ariana Rampy excellently demonstrates Emilia’s lyrical as well as justifiably outraged emotions.
The costumes and props, designed by McCammon and Fae, suitably convey the atmosphere of a modern militia. The music, composed by Craig Palmer and played by him on keyboards with Fae on guitar, nicely facilitates the ambiance, whether ominous or dramatic.
Once again, Synthetic Unlimited has successfully flexed its theatrical muscles and produced a worthy evening’s entertainment. Performances continue only Thursday (Oct. 24), Friday and Sunday at The Stonehouse in Nevada City.
Hindi Greenberg loves Shakespeare, ever since a brilliant English teacher in her senior year of high school spent a month creatively analyzing every nuance of “Macbeth.” Hindi was enthralled every day of that month.