Chicago Theater Review: OTHELLO (The Gift Theatre)

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by Erika Mikkalo on August 5, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

A JEWEL OF THEIR SOULS

The Gift Theatre’s production of Othello – their first Shakespeare, and my first exposure to this company – is a gift indeed. The doubly minimal set, combined with the decision to frequently execute the Elizabethan script with contemporary vernacular rhythms, serves to rid the production of any period distractions and distill it to its Aristotelian and human fundamentals. Heroes as well as husbands have flaws. Trusted confidantes may be schemers. There is a double standard in play between what men want and what women are permitted. And jealousy can slither or explode into disaster, whether motivated by lust, greed, or pride.

Jay-Worthington-and-Kareem-Bandealy-in-Othello-Gift-TheatreThe standard division of Shakespeare notes that comedies end in marriage, tragedies in slaughter. In Othello, the opening wedding is not celebrated, but an illicit elopement, and through the toxic machinations of Michael Patrick Thornton’s breathtakingly vile Iago, reaches an inevitable and tragic end long before any anniversary.  The Gift is housed in a forty-seat storefront theater, so proximity allows the principals to shine – or fester, as character commands. Kareem Bandealy portrays an Othello both dashing and commanding, with consistent glimmers of hair-trigger potential (it would even appear that he has trained the veins in his polished scalp to throb menacingly on cue). Desdemona could come across as dully naïve – the play’s patsy – but Brittany Burch delivers her protestations of affection with such sincerity that this is not the case. The character Emilia serves as Desdemona’s handmaid and Iago’s wife; Darci Nalepa depicts her as an afflicted spouse, worldly woman, and righteous witness with an even measure that anchors the extremes of the text. Director Jonathon Berry and company ratchet up the dynamics with dreadful clarity, bringing an edge-of-your-seat excitement to a story familiar to many.

Alexander-Lane-and-Robert-Kruse-in-Othello-Gift-TheatreDesigner Dan Stratton’s white background panels swing on their axels to signify a house, senate chamber, citadel, or boudoir. Costumer designer Stephanie Cluggish’s anachronistic choices, mixing modern business wear with Venetian swag, add a degree of levity to a weighted story, as does the occasional timely use of an iPhone.

It bears mentioning that I thought at first that Thornton’s wheelchair may have been a directorial choice to emphasize Iago’s experience on the frontlines, or to physically echo the moral deficits of the character, thus adding an element of ability prejudice to a play run through with racism and misogyny. It is actually a tool the actor uses daily, and is put to good use in this production, precariously pushed by Othello in a reversal of roles and providing camouflage for a weapon as well.

Darci-Nalepa-and-Brittany-Burch-in-Othello-Gift-Theatre

photos by Claire Demos

Kareem-Bandealy-and-Michael-Patrick-Thornton-in-Othello-Gift-Theatre

Othello
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee
Thurs-Sat at 7:30, Sun at 2:30
ends on August 24, 2014
for tickets, call 773-283-7071 or visit Gift Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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