- The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, and: Twelfth Night
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The Shakespeare Project of Chicago specializes in producing semi-staged early modern readings, organizing an interpretation of a text around the use of playtext prompters. It is an intentionally stripped-down process: they rehearse a production for three days before a single weekend of performances at four Chicagoland libraries. The spaces are routine, but because of the tight schedule the players don’t actually get a chance to rehearse in them. This means the company is typically unable to test blocking choices or experiment with the presentational options the architecture of a space might provide. This mode of production presents a unique challenge to each performance: how to adapt the use of plain black playtext prompters—often the only prop available—in these four bare and relatively untested spaces.
To get into the Niles Public Library performance of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice one had to reserve a seat in advance online; a handful of patrons were turned away due to a packed house. Niles provided a separate event room that happened to include a very narrow stage space, approximately three feet deep and about a third as high: it provided nowhere to hide or to be “off stage.” In fact, with the audience and performers fully and equally lit, there was no sense that any part of the room could be marked as separate from the playing space. The aisles between sections of the audience were incorporated as a place for action, as in the early morning scene outside of Brabantio’s home where he is goaded by Cassio and Iago. With Brabantio on the lip of the dais, Iago and Cassio pushed themselves down rows and between aisles, then threw their voices in and from different directions amongst the audience in order to simulate a street. While it may have only been a difference of a foot or so in height, it was enough to create the effect of Brabantio leaning out an upper-story window.
Similarly, despite the fact that the costumes seemed to have come from the actors’ own wardrobes, they did work to emphasize political distinctions between characters. For example, nobles and military leaders were the most formal in neckties, slacks, and button-downs, while the soldiers went without ties to denote their lesser rank. Iago was barely distinguishable from the audience in his casual denim and t-shirt. Othello, however, was alone all in black. These hierarchies of dress suggested his liminal status in two senses: the nondescript black reinforced his Moorishness and also marked him in something we might associate with stagehand’s dress rather than overtly a performer. Thus, his dress took him not only out of the narrative’s classed hierarchy, but also nearly out of the fiction of the play. In the cases of blocking, lighting, and costumes, these choices [End Page 287] worked to erase as many barriers between the players and playgoers as possible without ignoring the necessity of marking political distinctions within the narrative.
Complementing these subtle costuming choices was...