Tony Simotes has been having fun with Shakespeare for three decades now, but that doesn’t mean there still aren’t a few new wrinkles about the bard and his work waiting to be explored and interpreted.
In the Shakespeare & Company production of “Othello,” which begins previews Friday and opens July 25 at the Founders’ Theater, director Simotes has moved the play into the early 19th century and added a second black actor to the cast. Both changes have helped Simotes gain a new appreciation of the play and its story.
“I set the play in the 1820s because I was inspired by [Spanish artist Francisco] Goya and his wonderful romantic paintings from that period, and I wanted to make the part of Cassio one of color as well,” said Simotes. “Usually, modern productions of ‘Othello’ only have one black actor, but I wanted to point out that Othello, in a position of power, might want to choose somebody like himself, perhaps a more refined version, but somebody like himself to be the best officer and be his Cassio.
WHERE: Founders’ Theater, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.
WHEN: Previews 8 p.m. Friday, opens 8 p.m, July 25 and runs through Aug. 31; performance times vary
HOW MUCH: $54-$15
MORE INFO: (413) 637-1199
Playing the part of Othello is black actor John Douglas Thompson, who has also played the role at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. That character, a Moor, is typically played by a black actor, but with LeRoy McClain, also black, joining the cast as Cassio, the Shakespeare & Company production promises to have a fresh look.
Expanding the bard’s blueprint
Also, because of some questions raised by McClain early in the rehearsal process, this production will be focusing on what Simotes feels can’t be overstated: the relationships between the characters.
“Shakespeare gave us a great blueprint to create wonderful theater, but in some other productions they seem to concentrate on the melodrama,” said Simotes, one of the founding members of Shakespeare & Company 31 years ago. “Yet it’s the human drama that is so great in the play, and during the rehearsal process, because of LeRoy, the actors have given themselves over to tell the personal stories between the characters. That’s the stunning part, and that’s what’s helping us create a layered story.”
McClain, who made his Shakespeare & Company debut last summer in “Rough Crossing” and “Blue/Orange,” didn’t hesitate to mention to his director that
he’d always had some issues with other productions of “Othello” that he had seen.
“What I found disturbing was a lack of respect for the relationships,” said McClain. “As a person of color watching a play that deals with interracial marriage, you get the sense that the audience is rooting against that. That didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth.
“In the past, I would blame that on the play itself, but after talking to John and Tony during rehearsals my view has changed,” said McClain. “I realized what was lacking was the idea of the strength of the relationships. It’s important what all those characters mean to each other. So when there is a loss, the audience feels it. You’re not just watching some villain waltz through the play.”
As director, Simotes is making sure the focus is on the characters.
“I was hoping after a while that LeRoy would come to me and say that he has changed his mind,” said Simotes.
“I remember when he made his comment and said how he didn’t feel comfortable with the play, I saw his point and I appreciated what he was thinking. So what we’re remembering to do is to concentrate on the dynamics of the relationships, and everyone is bringing their own personal history to the stage to make it alive and make the changes tangible. You can look at this play in a new way.”
Written by Shakespeare in the very early 17th century, “Othello” is a tragedy that revolves around four essential characters: Othello, a black general of the Venetian army, his wife Desdemona, his lieutenant Cassio and his adviser Iago. The timeless themes of racism, love, jealousy and betrayal have continued to make the play popular today more than 400 years after Shakespeare wrote it.
“I think that ‘Othello’ is one of Shakespeare’s most economical plays because it really moves in one direction and it’s about real people, not kings and queens,” said Thompson. “It’s about love between a black man and a white woman, and those things can still garner a lot of attention today. But what Shakespeare does is make it a positive story. He tells us how strong that love is, and how beautiful and wonderful it can be, as long as there’s no one attacking it from the outside and bringing it down. It’s about racism and friendship, and those things will always be pertinent.”
Like McClain and Simotes, Thompson is having fun taking a fresh look at “Othello,” while remembering to pay homage to the black actors who have portrayed the title character in earlier productions — in particular Ira Aldridge.
“Having already done it a few times prior to this production, I think that gives me a little license to take a few risks and go a little deeper with the text,” he said. “But I also want to pay my respects to all the other black actors who have played this part, including Ira Aldridge, who I believe was the first black Othello. I’m trying to channel all their spirits in my own way and come up with a performance that respects them.”
Simotes is hopeful that this new production of “Othello” will be part of an ongoing examination of this country’s race relations — a discussion started in earnest with Barack Obama’s successful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I think the campaign between Obama and [Republican candidate John] McCain has created a great conversation among most Americans, and it was one that needed to take place,” said Simotes. “We’re looking at an amazing experiment with this election in the fall, and it will be interesting to see how it impacts our society. It’s generating a great discussion, and this production of ‘Othello’ will be part of it. Our audience will see that when they watch this play.”
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