Review: ‘Othello’ by Ubuntu Theater Project, Berkeley (****)

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by Barry David Horwitz

Othello Presented in a Palace of Persian Splendor

The issues of race and of religion recede in the aura of Eastern grandeur in Ubuntu Theater’s site-specific Othello, played at Emmett Eiland’s spectacular Oriental Rug showroom in North Berkeley.  Once we enter this palace of Persian splendor,  we are inside a realm of  women’s values. We sense the collegial and utopian world suggested by Shakespeare’s female characters. By the end, we remember the women who transform the worlds of Venice and Cyprus: Desdemona is reason, Amelia is Equity, and Bianca is Honesty, each one a rebel against Venice’s patriarchy, elements of a rational world to come.

Thinking back over the experience of lounging around stacks of expensive and elaborate Persian rugs, the product of such infinite labors and grand design, we are struck by the prominence of the women characters in this version of Shakespeare’s domestic tragedy.

In Ubuntu’s design, Desdemona (a forthright Emilie Whelan), is a grown, mature woman, not a naïve girl. She takes her place among the men in the action of this military and sexual romp. She is not content to travel to Cyprus and bow down before men and do their bidding. From the first, she is feisty, independent, and strong-minded.

Whelan’s intelligent, rational Desdemona knows her mind, and rebels against the manipulating, worrisome male dominance. She knows when something smells bad. She confronts her doting and literal-minded hero at every turn.

Her friend and maid, Emilia, a smart and strong Sarita Ocon, knows what’s up, too. Although she makes the fatal mistake of giving the strawberry handkerchief to her husband, Iago, she senses her mistake at once, and tries to make up for it. The men are brutal, war-like, and ego-driven, while the women are thoughtful sensual problem-solvers.

Sara Ocon as Emilia in Ubuntu Theatre Project's production of "Othello."
Sara Ocon as Emilia in Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of “Othello.” Photo Credit: Ubuntu Theater Project.

The domestic scenes, led by Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca, stiffen the spine of this modern Othello. Bianca, Cassio’s much-maligned girlfriend, is repeatedly mocked by the soldiers as a ‘loose’ woman. The men’s obvious disdain for women, their misogyny, runs throughout the play. It is seen in the rejection of Desdemona by her father, in Iago’s use and abuse of Amelia, and in the soldiers’ mocking of Bianca as a ‘loose’ woman. The women’s words and hopes are warp and woof of a secret design in the tapestry. The women’s reasons easily outshine the feeble rationalizations of the men. Othello, Iago, and Cassio play for Team War and Male and Ego. They pose, posture, and complain, but they stand for nothing but Self and Ambition.

This Desdemona matches Othello (a supple, elegant Ronald Kirk) at every point . She is his partner and soul-mate from the start, which introduces disturbing problems for the men in the play. These males are thriving on war, as the Venetian Empire asserts itself against the Turk. They also assert themselves in parallel patriarchal quarrels with each other and with their women. The men all live in a Trumped-Up World, where war and brutality come first. And reason comes limping after.

Othello, as the idealized “Other” in the group tries to run counter to the military mold, but he is already a signed up, contracted mercenary. He can not swim upstream against the prevailing ideology of hatred, war, and misogyny. He’s a convert trapped by the imperial wars.

Othello (Ronald Kirk) and Iago (Michael Navarra). Photo Credit: Ubuntu Theater Company.
Othello (Ronald Kirk) and Iago (Michael Navarra). Photo Credit: Ubuntu Theater Project.

Ronald Kirk’s Othello is a charming, down-to-earth, and admirable presence. We want to like him, to follow him — you couldn’t ask for a nicer, nobler guy. Kirk grabs the eye and holds it. The music of his delivery alone makes him more of a poet than an admiral. Othello’s conversion to Christianity and his wooing of Desdemona pass quickly by in dance and tableau in the opening. The dance and music and wooden poles introduce us to the full company of wonderfully-trained and choreographed actors, a rich tapestry of international Americans of varied ages and styles.

Ubuntu’s production of Othello” points up how the men are easily fooled, how they thrive on conflict. We see a terrible, destructive naivete in Othello, in Michael Cassio (David Naughton), and even in the inscrutable Iago (Michael Navarra). Like a playwright, Iago ascribes motives to everyone but himself; he lacks self-direction. Where are his intimacies, his seductive abilities, and his pleasure at wrong-footing his buddy, Othello? He works smartly and efficiently, like a technician, through he schemes with no pleasure. Navarra turns him into the corporate thinker. But he cannot fool these smart women.

The soldier-boys keep their Venetian war-machine going as long as they can, covering up their domestic failures. But the women transcend the moment and inspire us. Ubuntu unfolds great ironies as the warship of Venice founders on domestic rocks. This “Othello” is a highly recommended  spectacle.

“Othello”continues at Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company through June 26, 2016. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Othello” by William Shakespeare. Produced by Ubuntu Theater Project. Director: Michael Socrates Moran. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: Andrew Vargas. 

Cast:

Othello: Ronald Kirk. Desdemona: Emilie Whelan. Iago: Michael Navarra. Emilia: Sarita Ocon. Cassio: David Naughton. Roderigo: Matthew Hannon. Duke, Lodovico, Ensemble: Matt Standley. Montano, Ensemble: Francisco Arcila. Brabantio, Gratiano: Tom Bleecker. Bianca, Ensemble: Christine Jamlig. Ensemble: Anna Schumacher and Erik-Jon Gibson.

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