by John Stoltenberg
Every great play by Shakespeare takes on altered shades of meanings depending on a production’s directing, design, and acting. That’s a theater truism. Also well-known to practitioners is that audience reaction can influence actors’ performances. But less recognized is how an audience’s response can shift a play’s thematic focus, making the play their own, by foregrounding meaning that most resonates with them in the moment.
I think Shakespeare meant that to happen. His plays are a piling on of themes, a pick-what-you-will preferring of philosophies, angles of vision, interpretations of human existence. Scholars and literary critics sort out motifs and parse what Shakespeare is “saying.” Directors approach their work with a production concept to guide an audience’s apprehension of the play. But sometimes an audience goes rogue in a most wonderful way and discovers its own timely take on a timeless classic.
It was a witness as this happened during a Free For All performance of Othello at Sidney Harmon Hall the other night. It’s a superb production, a remount of Director Ron Daniels’s acclaimed 2016 staging, with solid performances by returning and new cast members alike. But what the Free For All audience made of it was eye-opening.
Among the many themes running through Othello—pride, jealousy, ambition, sex, marriage—there was one that leaped out: honesty. It was this theme above all others that the audience seemed in a mood to grab on to and run with. That’s what they did, audibly recognizing, enjoying, even laughing at, the deceit, bravado, guile, and audacity of the man whom Othello dubs “Honest Iago.”
Jay Whitaker’s Iago is a slick slimeball, a crafty chameleon, masterfully switching tactics with a physical and vocal dexterity that’s mesmerizing. Whitaker’s performance is reason enough to enter the free-ticket lottery pronto. If you get lucky and get into the show, you’ll see why the audience I was in glommed on to him.
But more was at play than a great performance. It was as if the audience was responding out of the shared experience of having lived now for half a year in a post-truth country, a twilight zone where alternate facts pass for public policy, fabrication usurps news, and vanity supplants values. It was as if laughing at Shakespeare’s greatest liar was exactly the relief everyone needed.
Shakespeare introduces Iago duping Roderigo (Ben Diskant), whom Iago shakes down on the fake promise that Iago can hook Roderigo up with Desdemona for a price. In the Free For All performance, the combo of Diskant’s foppish dandy and Whitaker’s sly trickster made the joke land instantly, and the audience seemed thereafter to adopt Iago as their entertaining entry into the story. Thus Othello’s subsequent “Honest Iago” sobriquet functioned as punch line—because the audience had Iago’s number as a con artist from the get-go, and they were digging being in on the joke.
The comedic arc of Iago’s flimflammery climaxed in the Act IV scene where Iago makes Othello believe that Cassius has admitted sleeping with Desdemona.
Othello: Hath he [Casius] said any thing?
Iago: He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.
Othello: What hath he said?
Iago: Faith, that he did—I know not what he did.
Othello: What? what?
Othello: With her?
Iago: With her, on her; what you will.
With that last insinuation, Whitaker hilariously physicalizes the mental picture he’s planting in Othello’s fevered brain. While the text has Iago’s disclosure send Othello round the bend (he has a literal fit), it was Whitaker’s graphic antics (he humps like a horny dog) that made the audience go nuts.
By spotlighting Whitaker’s Iago, I mean no slight to the many other standout performances in this production.The Pakistani American actor Faran Tahir, returning from the 2016 production, is magisterial as a Muslim Moor, and brilliantly limns Shakespeare’s portrait of an ethnic outsider. Among the new cast members, Madeleine Rogers as Desdemona is especially impressive, standing her ground and embodying honesty with a contemporary self-possession that makes her innocent victimhood all the more awful—and, in this context, a metaphor for the death of truth. Also bringing transparent modern dignity to their roles are Pilar Witherspoon as Emilia and Veronica del Cerro as Bianca.
I remember my first experience seeing a Shakespeare play at the Globe in London and being struck by how much of the text was structured to play to the groundlings. I hadn’t before appreciated how Shakespeare was deliberately addressing an audience sharply segmented by ticket price yet creating a commonality within that wooden O. I suspect that one of the reasons STC’s annual Free For All is so embraced by audiences and artists alike is that it comes closer to recapturing the Bard’s bond with folks in the cheap seats than can typically happen at higher price points.
But what’s happening in the current Free For All production of Othello is more than that. It’s a fascinating fresh revelation of a classic. Its resonance about the consequences of truthlessness is speaking both profoundly and cathartically to the times we live in.
Catch it if you can.
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.
Free For All Othello plays through Sunday August 27, 2017, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall– 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Information about how to receive free tickets is available online.
Review: ‘Othello’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by (March 2, 2016)