An all-female production of “Othello” sounds like a pretty awful idea. “Concept production” in theater is frequently shorthand for pretentious hackery, and, before attending Saturday night’s preview performance, I couldn’t come up with any useful or interesting reason for such a creative casting scheme. However, PSC’s “Othello,” directed by Allie Kolaski ’13, stands as a testament to the fact that good acting is good acting, and a good story is a good story. Ultimately, this production shines with a clarity and danger infrequently seen in student Shakespeare productions.
Working with an all-female ensemble, the play does certainly read differently than typical stagings of the script — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. It was never totally clear or consistent whether the actresses were playing male or female characters. The traditionally male characters were costumed in pants and boots, which seemed to indicate masculinity, but there didn’t seem to be anything in the performances themselves to corroborate this gender switch. This led to some muddied elements. Much of the sexual tension that permeates the text, particularly in the marriages between Othello and Desdemona and Iago and Emilia, doesn’t come across. In addition, there is a degree to which some of the violence doesn’t read as well as it might — perhaps because it doesn’t evoke the same visceral reaction that a man abusing a woman does — but none of these problems confound the central action of the play, so I forgave them pretty quickly and accepted this pseudo-post-gender world well enough.
Conversely, what it did provide was an interesting dynamic for the characters. The world of the play becomes somewhat like an Elizabethan “Mean Girls,” which works surprisingly well to facilitate the petty grievances and vicious deceits that fuel the action. In the play, Iago (C.C. Kellogg ’13) is driven to jealous villainy over the appointment of Cassio (Carlie Robbins ’14) to the role of lieutenant. This visual of watching two attractive young women fight over a position makes the conflict feel like Iago has just lost out as spring fling queen and invokes, for the audience, a jealousy and dynamic with which we are very familiar. Similarly, when Emilia (Taylor Mallory ’13) delivers the keynote Act V monologue about the responsibilities of husbandry and rights of women, the lack of men in the world of the play illuminates with wonderful irony the socially constructed gender roles that the character chastises.
The cast is uniformly exceptional. Kellogg as Iago is an unstoppable force. Befitted in black tights and a pair of boots that are fatally fabulous, Kellogg uses her feminine wiles to address one of the biggest difficulties of the play — how to appear so convincing to the people within the play while making sure the audience understands she is lying. The treachery accomplished would make Regina George cower in her silver Lexus. Opposite her is Uchechi Kalu ’14 in the title role of Othello, whose decline from cool monarch to jealous murderer is devastating. Her commitment to the raw physicality of the role makes for a powerful performance, as she launched into violent fits with startling command. Robbins as Cassio brings rich life to one of Shakespeare’s flatter characters and gives one of the better performances of drunkenness I’ve ever seen. Evelyn Giovine ’16 as Desdemona and Mallory as Emilia both delight as the innocent and faithful victims of their husbands’ tragedies.
The performance, under the direction of Kolaski and assistant director Zach Salk ’14, is intelligently rendered as a streamlined production, with no scenery and only a few props. This allowed the characters to move freely between scenes, avoiding many of the issues of the traditionally problematic Whitman Class of 1970 Theatre’s thrust stage. The staging provides the actors with great opportunities to bring their situations out to the audience in soliloquy, highlighting the presentational aspect of Shakespeare — one that’s so frequently missed in production.
This production had a long road from auditions, at which point both male and female actors were being considered, to opening night, which has been pushed back to this coming Thursday due to illnesses in the cast. In any event, the end product speaks for itself. So, I say, “Four paws for you, Othello; you go, Othello.”
4 out of 5 paws
Pros: Strong performances; elegant staging.
Cons: Unclear gender concepts.