Written by A, J, G, OT, N, D, M, O, L, G, N; photographed by G, o, l, G, and L
Every great Shakespearean play addresses a “problem.” The most pervasive ones are the racial issues and the differences between men and women.
“Othello” isn’t your run-of-the-mill adaptation. In Central Park in New York City this summer, this “twentieth-century retelling” of Shakespeare’s tragedy was stripped bare of every line of dialog, dialogue and symbolic statement written into the original text. Director and playwright Paula Vogel not only deconstructed the Bard, but she did it all by herself — from starting at the very beginning to showing how race played a part in the play’s violence.
It was July 30, 2015, when Vogel first read Othello as a young actress.
“For the first time in my life I was considering something that would reach millions of people, or tens of millions of people, as opposed to a piece that wasn’t on TV or on Broadway,” she said.
She was particularly interested in telling the story of the Moor’s servant, “Iago,” who becomes an obsessive figure, analyzing his victim’s every move and plotting her death. It was this playwright who first taught Vogel what race could mean in the context of modern society.
The real-life Othello was Moorish and Etruscan, and like many great poets, his experiences “meant a lot to him,” Vogel said.
However, other roles of Othello’s, including that of Iago, strongly emphasized the black woman’s role in the play. That’s all about to change.
Vogel felt as though Iago was an “accidental collaborator” in the fate of Othello’s love, Desdemona. When she finally had the courage to pull up Othello’s history and figure out why “insisting on the purity of Desdemona’s beauty and her voice was a deeply sexist act.”
“It would have been more liberating to just have Iago be a purely white character, and Iago be Othello. I don’t care what I think of those two relationships,” she said.
Vogel also hasn’t forgotten Othello’s violence toward Desdemona, who’s constantly mocked for being effeminate and male, with a “low voice and lower pants.” Vogel wanted to strip away any sympathy she might have felt.
That’s where the almost four-year journey for Vogel really started.
“The thing that surprised me the most was how thoroughly I could deconstruct this bloody tragic tale,” she said.
With many of the seats in the theater sitting right on top of the stage, Vogel spent weeks standing on the same spot where Othello was killed. She wore all black clothing and a mask while she waited for the tragedy to occur, ensuring she was in the right frame of mind and frame of sight to “act” out the story.
“Most people knew that this summer was not going to be a traditional interpretation of Othello,” Vogel said. But even though it was “one of the great movements in the history of theater,” she thinks this change is essential.
“To all of us in this gender game — and people who are at the lowest rung of the ladder, the people who need Othello most — we need to take him back from them and demand he get back to his rightful place. I want to pay him back with my best work,” she said.