At the heart of the matter, “Othello” is kind of a bummer when it comes to female parts. Unless you’re really good at pretending to be smothered, you’re essentially going to find yourself shortchanged when it comes to roles for the neatly-genitaled.
When Allie Kolaski ’13 decided to cast an all-female “Othello,” she was not only acknowledging the disproportionate ratio of women to men that appear on the sign-up sheets outside of Theatre Intime, but she was opening access to a handful of exciting roles that were originally relegated to men. In our daily life, gender is far more than just a role to play. But on stage, we should be willing to consider gender as performance and be open to the possibility of gender-bending within casting.
It is tempting to draw a parallel to the original environment in which “Othello” was produced, where roles such as Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia would be filled by men. However, Kolaski’s “Othello” makes no effort to disguise the gender of its actors. The play greets its audience with the dull clack of the heels on Iago’s boots across the stage and the first hints of vile plans delivered from her lipsticked mouth. While the characters keep their gendered names, the play is devoid of caricatured crotch-grabs, unnecessary grunting and awkward adjustments of shoulder-position. Cassio’s hair flows full and feminine over her shoulders and the fight scenes, thankfully, avoid falling into the categories of entanglements of masculine bravado or screeching catfights.
Rather than placing emphasis on behaving as their characters’ genders, the highly talented cast members of “Othello” instead concentrate on a gender-neutral representation of the characters’ backgrounds. Othello commands the stage with the presence, confidence and composure of an accomplished soldier, paying no credence to the gendered implications of movement or manner of dress.
Moreover, the elimination of gender from “Othello” paints the dynamic of Othello’s relationship to her wife, Desdemona, in a drastically different light. Desdemona’s death, in particular, is less a moment of the feminine succumbing to the masculine than the guiltless succumbing to the paranoid. The vulnerabilities of Othello’s nature are drawn to the forefront, no longer stifled by gendered implications of castration myths and household roles. Instead, Othello’s act is more human and, while unforgivable, maybe enough to elicit some pity from the audience, which the actress delivers beautifully.
Interestingly, it was still clear that race was a major part of the play and casting. And, when you’re putting on a production of “Othello, The Moor of Venice,” it is inevitable that race is going to come up. It is a play that singles out race right in the title, indicating the main struggle of the piece is based on prejudice and that racial tensions are about as prevalent in the play as puns. Through Kolaski’s suspension of the gendered dimension of the power relations in “Othello,” the central racial tensions of the play are another click of the lens into focus. In placing all of the characters on an even level in terms of gender, the stains of prejudice and bigotry that color the culture of the play are only all the more unavoidable.
The entirety of the cast of “Othello,” excluding the title character, at least appears to be white. This choice only made more prevalent Othello’s isolation from the society in which she exists, creating a whitewashed world in which our protagonist is constantly singled out for and indentified by her race. Played by the dynamic and powerful Uchechi Kalu ’14, Othello is surrounded by bias and hostility, forced to prove the goodness of her nature repeatedly to the other characters on stage after she has already won the audience over with her warm, infectious confidence from her first strides into the spotlight. With the dimension of gender gone, the struggle of Othello’s push against the racism of her environment becomes even more apparent to the audience.
In this way, the brilliance of Kolaski’s casting decision shines through. By opening up the male-gendered roles to talented actresses, the audience is treated to the delight of watching Kalu’s vibrant interpretation of Othello’s struggles or C.C. Kellogg ’13’s fabulously devious take on Iago. By leaving traditional casting technique in the wings, Kolaski’s production gives audiences a fresh and vulnerable look at a classic text, allows wonderfully talented actresses to tap into roles they traditionally would not have the opportunity to play and reminds us that the fluidity of gender flows just as easily on the stage.
Lauren Prastien is an anthroplogy major from Fair Lawn, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/18/31557/