Othello Review — Shakespeare’s Tragedy Compelling in Intimate Space

 

(L to R) Kareem Bandealy (Othello) and Michael Patrick Thornton (Iago) in The Gift Theatre's production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Berry. © Claire Demos

 

The Gift Theatre makes its Shakespeare debut with a production of Othello, starring Kareem Bandealy and directed by Jonathan Berry. The talented ensemble brings the Bard’s classic “story about a handkerchief” to life, immersing audience members in the drama of the tale while adding their own twist.

 

(L to R) Jay Worthington (Cassio), Brittany Burch (Desdemona) and Darci Nalepa (Emilia) in The Gift Theatre's production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Berry. © Claire Demos

 

One of the highlights of the production is Kareem Bandealy’s performance as Othello. An experienced Shakespeare actor, Bandealy brings both strength and vulnerability to the Moor, which makes watching his performance of the complex title character a unique treat. His chemistry with actor Brittany Burch, who played angelic heroine Desdemona, was also entrancing. The couple’s deep love for one another in the opening scenes made the effects of Iago’s wicked scheming against them all the more painful for the audience to watch, as Bandealy’s Othello transformed from a generous lover to a man blinded by jealousy and Burch’s Desdemona trembled in the face of her husband’s rage, still obeying him to the very last.

 

(L to R) Jay Worthington (Cassio) and Kareem Bandealy (Othello) in The Gift Theatre's production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Berry. © Claire Demos

 

Indeed, the women of the cast commanded the stage in the show’s second half, with Darci Nalepa’s Emelia transforming from the nondescript wife of earlier acts into a force of righteous anger whose presence dominated the moments leading up to her death. Her small role became an unexpected highlight.

 

(L to R) Darci Nalepa (Emilia) and Brittany Burch (Desdemona) in The Gift Theatre's production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Berry. © Claire Demos

 

Michael Patrick Thornton, the Gift Theatre’s artistic director and co-founder, portrays Iago, one of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains. Thornton certainly has the acting chops for the role, but his lack of technical proficiency in Shakespeare shows, particularly in his articulation, which is noticeably poorer than that of other lead actors like Bandealy and Burch. Still, Thornton has an excellent physical presence onstage, with a shiftiness and near-constant movement of his wheelchair that gives the impression of untrustworthiness even when Iago’s façade of honesty is in full force. The intimate size of the Gift’s 40-seat theatre works to Thornton’s advantage as well, bringing him in close contact with the audience for Iago’s soliloquies. Indeed, the immediacy of the space is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the production, bringing Shakespeare’s work into close quarters with the tightly packed audience. Starting August 14, actor Gabriel Franken, currently portraying Roderigo, will step into the role of Iago.

 

Michael Patrick Thornton (Iago) in The Gift Theatre's production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Berry. © Claire Demos

 

The production seemed uncertain of its own time and place, with cell phones in early scenes hinting at a modern update, but dated military uniforms and Desdemona’s mod costumes hinting at a 1960s throwback. The minimalist set, though appropriate for such a small space, did little to indicate location, and the stage violence was very basic. Still, some strong directorial choices, such as the show’s closing image of Iago looking upon his handiwork, made up for the less impressive design.

 

(L to R) Sara Bues (Bianca) and Jay Worthington (Cassio) in The Gift Theatre's production of Othello, directed by Jonathan Berry. © Claire Demos

 

Overall, the Gift Theatre’s Othello is a show worth seeing. We can only hope that this will be the harbinger of more quality Shakespeare productions to come.

 

Ticket Information

The show runs from July 17-August 24, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Single tickets, $20-$35, are available at http://www.thegifttheatre.org or by calling the box office at 773-283-7071. Subscriptions to the entire 2014 season start at $75. The Gift Theatre is located at 4802 N. Milwaukee in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood.

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