Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
April 5, 2011
Many theater companies and film directors have reinterpreted Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard’s work has been set in many time periods from the 1500s to the modern day and everywhere from Miami to Japan. Jane Becker ’11 and Emily Dunning ’11, the co-directors of Hold Thy Peace and the Brandeis Pluralism Alliance’s production of Othello, decided to follow in this tradition when developing their version of the classic tragedy. They brought the Moor of Venice to a steampunk-inspired future world inhabited by mechanically-enhanced humans. Styling Othello with steampunk elements is quite an original take on the play.
Originally coined in the 1980s, the term “steampunk” refers to a genre of science-fiction literature that portrays the future the way people of the Victorian era would have envisioned it. Steam-powered machinery and futuristic gadgets are mainstays of the genre, and its plots typically include societal breakdowns and the formation of anarchistic or totalitarian governments. Steampunk has also come to include styles of clothing, design and architecture, which often feature leather, brass and wooden elements.
The theme of otherness is central to the plot of Othello. The titular character (Jonathon Plesser ’12), a Moor who comes to reside in Venice, is different in physical appearance, religion and heritage from those who surround him. Originally, and still in most productions, Othello is cast as a black man, though the term Moor refers to anyone of Arab descent. However, in HTP’s production, Othello is not black. Instead, he is the only human being residing in a community of cyborgs, or humans who have had mechanical parts implanted into their bodies.
Because visuals are so important to the play, it was necessary to clearly demonstrate the characters’ robotic amplifications. Makeup designer Rachel Feldman ’11 and costume designer Marissa Linzi ’11 created each character’s look to correspond to his or her profession and status. Higher-class individuals, including Othello’s bride Desdemona (Caitlin Partridge ’13), were painted with decorative headgear. Soldiers and workers, on the other hand, received apparatuses that aided them in their professions, such as jet packs and goggle-like monocles.
These physical additions made for a unique look onstage, and I applaud Feldman and Linzi’s creativity and craftsmanship. However, the visual difference between Plesser and the rest of the cast was not striking enough to truly demonstrate Othello’s otherness. Much of the characters’ makeup was only visible from one side, so if they were facing the opposite direction, it wasn’t clear that they were electronically altered. Additionally, a lot of the characters’ mechanical elements were too refined to make a strong visual impact. Iago (Lenny Somervell ’13), the villain of the play, had only a few small circles painted on one cheek to signify his non-human status. Because race is so central to the plot of Othello, the physical differences between the Venetians and Othello should have been more apparent to stress this point.
Despite these issues, the play was put together well and entertaining overall. Partridge and Somervell, in particular, acted quite well, playing their characters’ expressions of tenderness and deceit, respectively, with intense sincerity. Though the play is titled Othello, it is Iago who serves as the audience’s guide, sharing his plot to drive Othello mad with jealousy and narrating the play’s events through multiple long monologues. There was no mention of the reversed-gender casting in the play itself, and after the initial scene it was generally possible to forget that a woman was playing Iago, though at times it proved somewhat distracting.
In past productions, Hold Thy Peace has presented Shakespeare’s works with new and alternative interpretations. In this instance, they chose to portray a “different kind of otherness” than race, according to Becker in a talkback after the performance. Producer Kiernan Bagge ’12 added, “Today, if there is someone who is an other, they can be admired for a skill or talent. But if they ever mess up, they can be very quickly turned on [by the majority].”
Such is the plot of Othello. Becker said that she has been met with negative comments about portraying Othello as anything other than black. I have to say that, ultimately, I agree with these criticisms. Though Plesser did a fine job in the role, the play didn’t have as much resonance with me as a traditional production would have. I didn’t care about discrimination against cyborgs. I care about racial tensions that exist, not in a mythical world of the future, but in our own today.