By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
A woman is murdered by a man in our country every six hours.
Murder-suicides, in which a man murders a woman, and then, unwilling or unable to face the consequences of what he’s done, takes his own life, are committed here at a rate of more than one per day.
Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello” (at Portland Center Stage through May 11th) depicts the latter crime, though not in a way which sheds any light the pernicious cycle of domestic violence in which our culture seems silently caught.
Othello (played here by the magnificent Daver Morrison) is a general and a moor. The play opens with his having eloped with Desdemona) an excellent Nikki Coble), the daughter of a local nobleman. His value as a general helps him escape the censure his wife’s father seeks, and soon Desdemona and he set off on a military mission in Venice.
Unbeknownst to the two of them, Othello’s officer Iago (Gavin Hoffman) is plotting to destroy his superior, eventually settling on a plan of driving him insane with jealousy. The laying of this trap consumes the first half of the play, with Iago previewing his plots in lengthy asides to the audience.
Viewed at all critically, Iago’s character makes little sense. The reasons he gives for hating Othello – namely that Othello slept with his wife – seem preposterous. He’s presented as a Machiavel, in the mold of Richard III, but appears to have no ambition. He’s a sociopath, but somehow no one surrounding him has caught on to that fact, as though that side of his personality has laid dormant until the moment the play begins.
Literary critics have tended to see him as an otherworldly embodiment of evil, and actors sometimes portray him that way, to compelling effect. Hoffman takes an opposite tack here, playing him with a droll detachment, and delivering his reams of dialogue with elegant mellifluousness. This leaves the production’s first half a little static, as we watch him calmly move the play’s cast around the stage like chess pawns for no coherent motivation.
Things pick up before intermission, when Iago begins planting doubts in Othello’s mind. Morrison is a great tragic actor, larger than life, yet perfectly grounded in the story. His gait and voice both create a distance from us and draw us in, somehow magnifying our attentions.
Also wonderful in the play’s first half is Timothy Sekk as Cassio, the officer Iago conspires to make Othello suspicious of. Sekk plays him with a fascinating, put-upon whine, suggesting immaturity and entitlement. It’s a peculiar, captivating choice that makes one miss his character whenever he’s gone.
Iago’s plot enjoys rapid success, and almost immediately upon becoming suspicious of Desdemona’s fidelity, Othello declares he will kill her. He talks to no one about this plan but Iago, who suggests he strangle her their bed.
This is presented as Othello’s tragedy, apparently, because he’s been “tricked.” The audience is meant to empathize with his insane, myopic jealousy, and the rapidity with which he leaps into violence (he strikes Desdemona in public) and murder, because . . . hmm.
I can’t really answer that, because I was appalled by the play myself, and mystified by its unquestioned status as a “great tragedy.” It speaks volumes, to my mind, about our culture’s unwillingness to face the epidemic of domestic violence we endure, and the vulnerability in which it leaves women, that, while a well-founded debate is being hadas to whether “The Merchant of Venice” is appropriate to stage in our time, given its seeming anti-Semitic content, not so much as a whisper is spoken against this monument to spousal abuse and murder.
The play’s entire second half leads to the killing, with Desdemona, sensing Othello’s growing suspicion and wrath, seeming to resign herself to the outcome. While Coble is quite moving in her role, Dana Green, as her maid (and Iago’s wife) Emelia is mesmerizing, crackling with a scene-stealing energy and wit.
Following the murder, Othello is given ample space to explain himself, claiming to have done what he did in “honor,” which, if one had to guess, means he thought she really did sleep around, which would have made it ok.
Observing the bystanders heap their wrath on Iago, while Desdemona’s dead body lay on the bed, center stage, rather than on her killer and husband, Othello, one is struck by the layers of distancing Shakespeare, consciously or unconsciously employed in staging his story of “almost-justified” wife killing.
He set the story in Italy, short hand in Elizabethan England for “wild and passionate,” made his protagonist an ethnic minority, a rarity in his plays, and invented a psychologically absurd villain who “makes” the protagonist, an otherwise good, happy person, jealous and homicidal. No one’s really to blame for the dead woman in the bed, you see? It’s all so tragic.
PCS’s staging of the play is sumptuous. The set is grand, and costumes opulent. At times the drama resembles a radiant, moving painting.
There are many Shakespeare plays worthy of such productions. This is one that would better have stayed on the page.
Photos by Patrick Weishampel.