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A Surprising Interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Othello”

A liberal dramatic license was taken by director Luther Hanson in the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival production of “Othello.”

Set in Venice of the late 1920s, the jazz music and dance numbers from that era are incorporated into the costumes and include women in flapper outfits and men wearing knickers, suits and straw Panama hats reminiscent of the styles of that period.

The military uniforms of Iago, Cassio and Othello appear as if they had been raided from the closets of Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington after they completed the filming of the movie “Glory.” The final surprise was the glittering outfit of the duchess ironically named “The Duke.”

The principal players included Gregory Jolivette, whose interpretation of Othello was full of life and very authentic. Rod Breton’s Iago was convincing but without the depth of depravity I would have liked. Kirsten Meyers held her own as Desdemona and displayed a lovely voice during the “Willow” song. Christine Nicholson had just the right display of moxie and attitude as Emilia. Tim Sapunor could have displayed much more emotion as Branbantio, but his opportunity for effectiveness probably suffered from the edits that seem to have cut his lines considerably from the original play. Justin McCoy was a little stiff, and he would be well served to bring a bit more passion to his role as Lodovico. Anthony Person did all he could with the role of Montano. The surprise was the casting of Jason Oler as Roderigo. His interpretation was well done, as he did not appear to be a complete dupe.

By casting a black man in the role of Roderigo, the contrast between the fair-skinned European suitors of Desdemona and dark-skinned Moor with whom she eloped was missing from the outset of the drama. The racial slurs against Othello and the negative references to his heritage were spoken, but not truly felt.

Therefore, the element of racism that I believe Shakespeare intended as an integral aspect of Othello was considerably downplayed if not missing entirely in the production. However, after I set aside my personal biases and expectations, I can honestly admit that I was entertained and walked away believing the production conveyed the themes Shakespeare intended to express on the subjects of loyalty, betrayal, revenge, jealousy, marriage and love when he created the “Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.”

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