Elizabethan Girl Power

Being a woman in a man's world is tough. Being a woman in Shakespeare's world? It's even tougher, as evidenced by Titan Theatre Company's latest offering, a production of the Bard's Othello featuring an all-female cast. In this new age of strong female characters—from film (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games) to television (Orphan Black and Girls)—never has it been better to be a woman in the 21st Century. So, to see a stage fully comprised of women, and so many different women of shapes, colors and sizes, take on one of the Bard's most masculine works is indeed empowering. Since these differences add another layer to what is an already interestingly layered play; just as in Orphan Black (which recently began its third season on BBC America), we are privy to the many different ways in which women think—and ultimately act.

The start of the play finds Venice at war with Turkey. The titular Othello, general of the Venetian forces (also herein known as "The Moor"), has just married the beautiful and fair Desdemona, much to the dismay of her mother Brabantio, a well-respected senator. Meanwhile, as Othello sets off for Cyprus, her ensign Iago is incensed at being passed over for the promotion of lieutenant, a position given to Cassio. At this, Iago famously proclaims, "I hate The Moor," and this sudden anger and struggle for power sparks a fire within her, setting into motion a web of deceit—one which spins out of her control and ultimately entangles her by the play's tragic end.

While definitely not the first all-female production this critic has come across, to see this device thrust and juxtaposed into the dark underbelly and strong ensemble that has since become Titan's calling card, is a whole other experience altogether. It goes without saying that the entire plot of and within the play, rests on Iago's cunning, and Titan resident company actor Laura Frye (last seen as Regan in the company's production of King Lear earlier this season) takes this on with much aplomb. As she schemes her way into the others’ minds, Frye is both completely charming and deliciously devious, making her an Iago you love to hate.

As for The Moor herself, Othello—played by Los Angeles-based actress Leah Dutchin, one of several actresses making their Titan debut—starts the play as a voice of reason, demonstrating that rare combination of both strength and vulnerability, particularly in scenes with Desdemona. Of their love, Othello describes the purity with which they fell for one another: "She gave me for my pains a world of kisses.” This innocence about love gradually starts to wither and once Iago plants the idea of Desdemona's supposed infidelity into her ear, Dutchin’s Othello becomes all-at-once a torn lover driven mad by jealousy. 

Also driven mad are Cassio and Roderigo, played by Abbey Siegworth and Leah Gabriel, respectively. Siegworth’s Cassio proves to be a formidable counterpart to both Frye’s Iago, as well as Dutchin’s Othello.  Meanwhile, Gabriel is at once hilarious and tragic as the bumbling Roderigo, whose love for Desdemona is never reciprocated. For her part, Emily Trask’s Desdemona is a beautiful, perfect portrayal of a character which represents all that is pure and innocent; she is especially heartbreaking in her scenes with Deanna Gibson’s Emilia, wherein she sings. Her soft, angelic voice makes her violent end all the more tragic.  The rest of the ensemble are just as strong, and it is clear in their onstage presence—particularly in the moments where they get drunk and sing, as well as the more action-packed sequences.

With all the intrigues Iago must manage between all the characters, one is reminded of the Mean Girls' culture: something which Jasmine Nicole’s minimalist scenic design—as well as director Lenny Banovez’s staging, use to their advantage. Every whisper of Iago's deceptive plan is heard by the other actors sitting among the audience, and it is this clever device which raises all sorts of feminist issues, including the all-too-familiar one of "girl-on-girl crime," as so famously put it in the Tina Fey-penned film.  Providing a contrast to the estrogen-level—and interestingly heightening the signature masculinity of the play—are the girls’ costumes. Aside from Desdemona, who is draped in flowy blue fabrics to reflect her calm-as-the-sea vibe, most of the cast are decked out in military gear that would not be amiss in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, a la Hunger Games: Iago’s trenchcoat and Othello’s boots are among the looks most coveted by this critic.  While there is no mention of a hair design credit, it must be said that the hairstyles sported by these ladies of the Shakes are certainly worth mentioning. From Iago’s awesomely complicated-looking braided faux-hawk to Desdemona’s cascading red locks, the girls were killin’ it—literally and metaphorically!         

Exploring feminism through one of the Bard's most masculine plays is not daring, or perhaps even new: but it is vital. Why do women want to bring one another down? Such a question still lingers, even in the so-called progressive times we live in. In watching Othello, a play written 400 years ago, it is remarkable to see just how much has changed—and how much hasn't. Men have power; so do women. Men can just as easily fail to use that power; so do women. And it's clear that just as so many male Iagos have had their say, so too, do women.

Othello ran from April 17 to May 2nd at the Queens Theatre (14 United Nations Avenue South in Corona). For more information on this production, visit www.titantheatrecompany.com or www.queenstheatre.org.

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