The work of William Shakespeare is elastic and enduring, crossing the boundaries of culture, language, ritual and time. Popular Shakespeare plays such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth”, and the “Merchant of Venice” have been translated into over 100 languages, and Shakespearian works are often reinterpreted into different time periods and reimagined for modern audiences. The theatre department at SUNY Buffalo State is continuing this tradition with their current production of “Othello”, the Bard’s classic story of revenge and deception, told through a modern sociopolitical lens.
“Othello”, a tragedy believed to have been written by Shakespeare in 1603, revolves around its two central characters: Othello (Keion Abrams), a Moorish general, and his treacherous ensign Iago (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez). Othello marries a noblewoman, Desdemona (Lissette DeJesus), without the blessing of her family. Iago plots with Roderigo (Azarias Matthews) to essentially destroy Othello. Iago cites several reasons for his vengeance, including Othello overlooking him for a promotion and giving the position to Cassio (Stephen Weisenburger) instead, and Othello possibly sleeping with Iago’s wife, Emilia (Gabriella McKinley). Roderigo, who is used by Iago because he is rich, is in love with Desdemona and works with Iago because he is promised that he will win Desdemona if they are able to defeat Othello. Iago’s plans become progressively more manipulative and complex as he preys upon Othello’s insecurities and convinces him that his new wife is having an affair with Cassio. Notably, director Jennifer Toohey transplanted the story from its original setting in Venice and Cyprus, Italy, to the modern backdrop of the U.S/Syrian conflict.
Modernizing Shakespeare is a tricky endeavor, and it flops as often as it succeeds. When done well, a modernized Shakespeare can breathe fresh air into centuries-old text and bring relevance to young audiences who haven’t yet been introduced to the themes and characters. When done poorly, the story often becomes lost and the characters overburdened. This production doesn’t squarely fit into either of those descriptions, but the retelling of the story against a modern foreign policy backdrop proves a bit unnecessary, mostly because the story, while told in a military context, isn’t really a military story; it’s a story of love, revenge, deceit, racism, and violence, and the elements of warfare are more a vehicle for the interpersonal machinations of Iago and Othello. Dressing the actors in modern camouflage perhaps provides a change of scenery, but doesn’t make any kind of meaningful thematic statement.
Though retelling “Othello” through the modern lens of the U.S/Syrian conflict doesn’t add a lot of substance to the story, this production is still excellent, largely because of the standout acting performances from Abrams, Gomez, DeJesus and McKinley. Gomez perfectly captures the maniacal nature of Iago, his constant manipulations and treachery always present. Abrams is a subtle and thoughtful performer, acting as a perfect vehicle for Shakespeare’s words and the complexity of Othello, a character who’s full of both pain and rage. DeJesus has a wide emotional range, fully on display with her love of and devotion to Othello, and her anguish over his mistrust of her. Most impressive is McKinley, whose Emilia is cutting, fierce, and enormously powerful, delivering the character’s monologues—especially the monologue about adultery—completely magnetically. Kudos to Toohey for her world-building, and for helping to guide these young performers to such excellence.
Buff State’s production of Othello is intense and captivating, one of the better collegiate theatre productions I’ve seen in some time. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover dozens of local, regional, and professional Shakespeare productions across New York and Canada, and the young people in this production of “Othello” are some of the finest actors I’ve seen to tackle the complexity of the Bard; we’ll surely be seeing more of them for years to come.
Othello is playing at SUNY Buffalo State until March 14th; for tickets and more information, click here.