She, So Young, Could Give Out Such Seeming
Riverside Theatre, Riverside Festival Stage, Iowa City, Iowa
Saturday and Sunday, June 28-29, 2014, D–106&107 and C–106&107(center stalls)
Directed by Theodore Swetz
A bewildered Desdemona (Kelly Gibson) looks up at an equally bewildered Othello (Daver Morrison) in the Riverside Theatre in the Park production of Othello. Photo by Bob Goodfellow, Riverside Theatre.
The first person we see in the Riverside Theatre in the Park staging of William Shakespeare's Othello is Desdemona. Kelly Gibson, gorgeous in a gold Renaissance Venetian dress with black highlights, runs out on the upper stage, looking out into the distance for her avowed husband. A priest appears at one side of the stage, and Othello runs in through the audience. Desdemona leaves the parapet and hurries through the stage door. The couple kiss, and the priest leads them off as Roderigo and Iago, walking on from the other side of the stage, watch them go. "Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly that thou, Iago, who hast had my purse as if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this," Roderigo says, speaking the play's first line.
Shakespeare starts his play off with Roderigo's and Iago's entrance and conversation. Appending the elopement to the start of the play does more than put that conversation into perspective. It establishes Desdemona as center point of the play. Shakespeare doesn't have her enter until 170 lines into the play's third scene (440 total lines from the play's start), but director Theodore Swetz makes sure we know who all the fuss of the first three scenes is over, and who is the one and only truly innocent victim of the tragedy to come. Furthermore, first impressions are lasting ones: the thing that is most striking about Gibson's first appearance is how young she looks.
Part of what makes Othello such an enduring play is how exquisitely Shakespeare drew the two centerpiece characters. It is Othello's tragedy in that the noble Moor, an accomplished warrior who has garnered the utmost trust of the Venetian Senate, hesitatingly and then so completely succumbs to the "green-eyed monster" jealousy when unwittingly caught up in Iago's psychopathic web. His whole psychological deterioration is vividly detailed in Shakespeare's writing. Iago, meanwhile, is the play's richly rendered antihero, a villain by nature who scams gullible young lords. When he is passed over for promotion he puts his villainy in the service of revenge fueled by a jealousy seasoned with a vague suspicion that Othello has cuckolded him. As Iago tells us everything that's going through his mind, from his motivation to his by-the-seat-of-his-pants plotting, we get to know him as well as we get to know any character in Shakespeare's canon.
Whereas Shakespeare creates the characters of Othello and Iago so thoroughly, he is less certain in his rendering of Desdemona. This seems odd for a playwright who gave us Cleopatra, Viola, Olivia, Portia, Adriana, the Countess of Rousillon, and so many more multidimensional female characters. Desdemona could be a frightened neophyte or an accomplished woman of society, naive or smart, uncertain or brashly confident, purely prudish or an unmitigated flirt. She could be "a maiden never bold, of spirit so still and quiet that her motion blush'd at herself," as her father describes her. She could be one of those ladies of Venice who "do let heaven see the pranks they dare not show their husbands; their best conscience is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown," as Iago describes her. Neither is a more trustworthy portrayal than the other: Brabantio's description of his own daughter is proven wrong in Othello's recounting of her taking the lead in their wooing, while Emilia reports being familiar with the type of woman Iago describes and seems surprised that Desdemona is so unaware of such behavior.
In fact, through a dozen stage and film productions, I've seen Desdemona played according to each of the descriptions above. This Riverside Theatre in the Park production is the first time I've seen her played so young. This Desdemona might be pushing 18, certainly no older than 20 (in the context of the play's times, Desdemona likely was in her midteens). Gibson might be older (an Equity member, she has an impressive resumé), but she not only looks youthful, she plays youth as Desdemona's overarching attribute: she is playful, innocently coy, adventurous, headstrong but eager to please, a smart kid but a bit socially immature. Her father Brabantio (a passionate Ron Clark) sees her still as his little girl; Othello, Cassio, and even Iago see her as an accomplished woman, revealed even in Iago's statement, "She that, so young, could give out such a seeming." Gibson's Desdemona is something in between "so young" and a "lady of Venice."
Thus, as intellectually as we observe the machinations of Tim Budd's engaging Iago, and as morally torn as we become watching Daver Morrison's stiffly proper Othello turn into an emotional mess of a man, we feel the tragedy through Gibson's Desdemona.
Like an intern in a major policymaking enterprise, Gibson's Desdemona has self-doubt but puts on a brave face and musters as much confidence as she can to navigate her new environment, the opulent world of Venetian nobility as portrayed in the detailed costumes of Tyler Wilson. Appreciation for Desdemona among Venice's nobility—beyond the fact she is Brabantio's daughter—is noticeable as Othello recounts the tale of their courtship. "My story being done," he says, "she gave me for my pains a world of sighs: She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange, 'twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful: She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd that heaven had made her such a man." Two of the senators are women in this production, and they look at each other with knowing glances: they know who used witchcraft in this wooing, and it was not Othello as Brabantio claims. "She thank'd me," Othello continues, "And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her, I should but teach him how to tell my story. And that would woo her." Now even the men are smiling. "I think this tale would win my daughter, too," says the otherwise in-haste Duke, which, as spoken by the authoritative John William Watkins, says as much about his daughter being very much like Desdemona as it does about Othello's charm.
Act III, Scene 3, is the play's pivotal scene when Iago begins working on Othello's psychosis, but director Swetz adds some key blocking to create a visual watershed moment, as well. Othello has important military documents in his hands that Desdemona snatches away from him as she importunes on behalf of Cassio (a dashing Steven Marzolf). There is a moment of keep-away as Othello chases her around the stage to get the documents back, and Othello accidently grabs Emilia when reaching for Desdemona behind her; Emilia squeals in delight, and Iago watches in silence. The game ends when Iago himself takes the documents, and Othello is able to return to being a general. "I will deny thee nothing," he tells Desdemona: "Whereon, I do beseech thee, grant me this, to leave me but a little to myself." Tenderly spoken, it's the last time we see both the loving husband Othello and the sensible military commander. It's also the first time we see the all-important handkerchief decorated in strawberries as Desdemona uses it to wipe the sweat from Othello's brow after their romp. And Iago watches.
Desdemona anchors everything on her love for Othello and, more importantly, on his love and trust in her. She doesn't know she's lost his trust even as she is gaining in her own sense of confidence. The scene in which she lobbies again for the reinstatement of Cassio while Othello demands the handkerchief displays Gibson's skills in playing a young woman with one goal—to make sure her husband still loves her—even as she tries to make sense of Othello's behavior so she can adjust accordingly.
The next scene when Othello strikes her and publicly humiliates her leaves us with a crestfallen albeit bewildered Desdemona. "She can turn, and turn, and yet go on, and turn again," says Othello, roughly spinning her around. She ends up facing the audience, and though she tries her best to maintain a stoic demeanor, Gibson's face cracks, unable to dam the overflowing tears. "And she can weep, sir, weep," Othello says, seeing her cry. "Proceed you in your tears … O well-painted passion!" He is so completely convinced of her harlotry that Othello can think no other than she's merely playacting. But in this superb piece of acting, Gibson shows us just how wrong Othello is. Even now, two acts before Othello murders her, Desdemona's plight is a tragic one. We are moved to not just pity for her, but anger at Othello and downright loathing for Iago standing to the side watching.
There are two other victims of Iago's treachery in this play, and this production gives them their due, too. Christopher Peltier plays Roderigo as a puppy dog, literally rushing to Iago's side on the latter's gestured command. Have you ever seen a dog bounding about when he sees the leash come out? It's walk time! Now think how Iago considers that leash a noose and not the fun the dog is expecting, and you get some idea of the emotional impact of Roderigo's demise in Peltier's portrayal. Jody Hovland, Riverside Theatre's artistic director, plays Emilia with stiff reserve, duteous to her husband, and a bit world-weary, too. Though she's ordered by Othello through Iago to wait on Desdemona, Hoyland's Emilia seems to appreciate being around this splash of youth and romance as a relief from her love-starved life with Iago.
Iago (Tim Budd, standing on the bench) encourages Cassio (Steven Marzolf, in black) to drink as Montano (Jess Prichard, right) and the rest of the Cyprus citizens cheer. Photo by Bob Goodfellow, Riverside Theatre.
In the lost handkerchief scene, she watches with perhaps a bit of guilt that she knows why Desdemona doesn't have the handkerchief on her, but she also is seeing behavior in Othello she's seen countless times before in men, including her husband. "Is not this man jealous?" she asks Desdemona matter-of-factly after Othello storms off. Desdemona "ne'er saw this before," plus she knows no reason for Othello to be jealous, but Hoyland's Emilia knows that doesn't matter and shares her own worldly wisdom in reply. "'Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all but stomachs, and we all but food, to eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us." It's a moment that makes us further appreciate the youth of Desdemona; it's also a moment that sets the audience up for one of the play's more shocking moments, when Iago kills Emilia. Despite all her worldly wisdom, she is not keen enough to see into Iago's soul.
By the end, Othello has won back his right to have the play called his tragedy. Morrison himself looks like a lost child, first when he realizes what he's done to his wife—how far into madness jealousy has driven him—and then as the truth of Iago's duplicity is revealed to him. The more Othello learns, the more Morrison himself looks bewildered. When he smotes himself, he dies while kissing the lifeless Desdemona.
This production ends right there. Cassio's follow-on couplet and Lodovico's wrap-up speech are cut. The lights go down on a tableaux of the lords and Iago around the bodies of Emilia on the floor and the newlywed couple on the bed. Swetz ends his version of Othello where he began, emotionally centered on the noble Moor and the young Desdemona.
July 3, 2014
The Riverside Festival Stage is a roofless theater in Iowa City's Lower City Park, and because of threat of flooding in the park, Othello's run ended up being cut short and the summer season's other play, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], moved to the company's indoor home, the Riverside Theatre at 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City.
On the night we attended Othello, a heavy rainstorm halted the play just as the revelries on Cyprus were getting started. We returned the next night and got in the whole play under threat of rain. Special kudos to Wilson's hardy though luscious costumes and to the cast who withstood not only a downpour the first night and brief showers the next night, but the audience removing rain ponchos from their purses and pouches, unfolding, and pulling them on as the cast performed. Ever try to put a rain poncho on over your head while sitting with people on either side of you doing the same? It is noisy from inside the poncho, and I can't imagine what Budd was putting up with as his Iago spoke of the night which either makes him or fordoes him quite.