Review: Shakespeare gone wild: City Garage’s renegade ‘Othello/Desdemona’
Those resolute renegades at City Garage have been tweaking the Bard all season in a triptych project they’re calling “The Winter of Our Discontent: Shakespeare in the Digital Age,” which concludes with “Othello/Desdemona.”
Playwright, producer and production designer Charles A. Duncombe doesn’t so much deconstruct the tragedy of a noble Moor undone by manipulated jealousy as turn its interior workings into an irreverent dissertation on the post-millennial landscape.
It opens on Othello (R.J. Jones) and Desdemona (Kenzie Kilroy) in a tableau of making love that segues into her death. As the projected face of Iago (Andrew Loviska) leers upstage, Othello begins Shakespeare’s post-murder lines — “Cold, cold, my girl?” — suddenly shifting to contemporary speak: “I’m having a crisis of identity. I’m not sure who I am anymore.”
You can say that again. With director Frédérique Michel and her valiant cast maintaining a jagged emotional pull beneath the High Performance austerity, “Othello/Desdemona” isn’t exactly shy about upending expectations. Desdemona is here a petulant brat who married exotic Othello to escape her cosseted Venetian life, and he could be a stand-in for every long-suffering “other” in the Digital Age.
It’s a starkly elegant, international-festival-ready staging, with costumer Josephine Poinsot assisting Duncombe’s trademark red-black-and-white scheme. Throughout, typical City Garage audacity is detectable: Iago’s head-miked speeches of arch self-help attitude, Desdemona trapeze-swinging from her sheets, Othello receiving the Doge (Bo Robert) naked in a bathtub, or Emilia being played by Anthony M. Sannazzaro in drag.
Periodically, as when Othello dons whiteface to challenge racial politics, the play makes its case by showing, not telling. That’s significant, because Duncombe’s text, though ferociously intelligent, is a multi-tiered jeremiad that eventually becomes didactic and overly explicative.
Although ruthless trims are needed, and various elements — Iago’s implied attraction to Othello, en travesti Emilia, the final return to iambic pentameter — warrant further exploration, “Othello/Desdemona” is undeniably unlike anything else in town.
“Othello/Desdemona,” City Garage, Building T1, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 29. Mature audiences. $25. (310) 453-9939 or www.citygarage.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
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