By: Annie Moreno, Contributing Writer
Featured image courtesy of Kanji Takeno
Towson University’s theatre department is taking on themes of jealousy and racism in their rendition of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” The show premiered April 5 and will run through April 14 in the Center for the Arts’ Studio Theatre.
Director Peter Wray, who is also the coordinator for the BFA in acting, said “Othello” allows the cast to take on Shakespearean language and themes, and translate them in a way that still resonates with modern audiences.
“We were looking for an opportunity for undergraduate actors in the BFA program to hone their skill sets from what they’re learning in the classroom,” Wray said. “Both in terms of approach to material, especially in Shakespeare, and how to approach language that is different than contemporary language; how to analyze it, break it down, and make it behavioral enough so that contemporary audience would understand what’s going on in the world of the play.”
The performance features themes of reputation, passion, love, trust and betrayal. But the play mostly focused on the theme of jealousy — a relatable topic that made for an engaging production.
“One of the major themes of the play is jealousy,” Wray said. “And we know that Othello is jealous, because that’s what Iago does. He makes him jealous, and Othello does tragic things. Every character in this play, like all of us, has different levels of jealousy. We are envious of someone who has something we want, and we are jealous of someone that does something we wish we could do.”
Towson’s “Othello” stars Tyrel Brown as Othello, Isaiah Harvey as Iago, Alessandra Mejia as Desdemona, Tim Neil as Cassio, and Autumn Koehnlein as Emilia.
Harvey said he hopes he is “nothing like Iago,” but that he enjoyed embodying Iago’s villainous character.
“The thing I definitely like about playing him is some of the lines he says are just downright disgusting, and I’m kind of worried with how much fun I’m having with this,” Harvey said. “The really intense moments are the moments where Iago is manipulating Othello. That kind of emotional outburst is really cathartic in my character, and he goes through some emotional swings.”
Shakespeare originally wrote the play in five acts, but the production team whittled it down to three.
Wray had the cast keep the theme of jealousy in mind when forming their characters, and he expressed his pride in how the show developed through the students’ exploration.
“It’s wonderful to see them grow and unlock their code of Shakespeare’s text…. As a company, they grew together as an ensemble, which was really fun to watch,” Wray said.
“Othello” is like a breakup gone bad — except it all ends with murder. There are love triangles, lies, misunderstandings about cheating in relationships, and dramatic fights. Yet there is still a sense of playfulness, all leading up to the intense unfolding of events in Act 3.
“I like, throughout the show, the moments of lightness people find,” Neil said. “In particular, when Hannah Faircloth, in the opening of Act 3, is mocking Iago and Rodrigo. They do a very good job of finding the moments of gravity, and bringing that different sort of energy to this sad piece.”
Harvey appreciated getting to see his castmates bring that lighter energy to parts of the play.
“The party scene was really fun, especially watching Tim literally trip over himself consistently,” Harvey said. “It was really funny. Just pretend-drinking on stage, is not something I’ve done before. So, it was a lot of fun doing the little party on stage.”
The show’s Italian and Turkish music gives the show a renaissance-like feel to match “Othello”’s 16th-century setting in Venice and Turkey amidst a war in Cyprus against the Turks.
Sam Brady, a senior theatre major and scenic designer for the production, said the set includes a see-through, fiberglass backdrop like the material from a window frame. The backdrop was made to look like trees with lighting, which adds interest to what is going on in the scenes.
“There are many instances within the play where people are hiding, people are sneaking around, and we audience members can see that someone is there, but in the scope of the play they are clearly hidden,” Brady said. “So that’s kind of what we were playing around with, and we knew they’d be beautiful to project light onto.”
Brady said that designing the floor was the most challenging part, which was intricately painted and detailed, adding eye-catching colors to the whole show.
“It was a lot of stencil, it was a lot of manpower, and it just turned out really beautifully and it’s really the base of the whole show,” Brady said.
On multiple occasions, Shakespeare highlights the relationships between women, and how they act when men are not around. “Othello” also shines a light on the degradation and abuse of women, as Othello repeatedly calls Desdemona a “whore” and abuses her due to his jealousy.
Both male and female characters wore blouses and pants in a vibrant pastel color theme that blended together on stage. The costumes also contributed to the gender-fluid vibe that is characteristic of many of Shakespeare’s plays.
Brown said he felt connected to Othello, despite the character’s shortcomings.
“Othello and I, we’re both very passionate when it comes to things,” Brown said. “Like, when we think something, we go for it, and nothing’s gonna stop us from getting what we want.”
For Wray, the level of development the students put into producing the play makes the show worthwhile.
“I enjoyed seeing each of the actors, in their own way, approach their character,” Wray said. “[It’s nice to see them] grow in their understanding of how the character fit in the world of the play of ‘Othello.’”