In William Shakespeare’s time (1564-1616), women didn’t act in plays. They weren’t allowed to, back in those days.
Shakespearean tragedies such as “Othello” had female roles, of course, but they were played by males, sometimes boys.
And the male roles were played strictly by men (notwithstanding the Oscar-winning though fictional “Shakespeare in Love” film from 1998 starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow).
So how would Will Shakespeare, if transported more than four centuries into the future to Soldiers and Sailors Park in Princeton, react to Festival 56’s production of “Othello,” which opened Sunday evening?
A production where, in striking role reversals, women are cast in the male roles, and men portray female characters?
My hunch is that Shakespeare would have leaped to his feet and applauded with gusto, just as the audience did, as “Othello’s” cast basked in a standing ovation at the end of the two-hour-plus play.
At first glance, “Othello” would hardly appear to be a natural for Festival 56’s 2019 theme, “A Season of Women’s Stories.”
An Elizabethan-era play filled with soldiers and treachery and lies and deceit and jealousy and swordplay and ambushes and murder set amid the threat of war between Venetians and Turks in Cyprus? Not the typical women’s story, to be sure.
But had Festival 56 not chosen to transform this play into a starring vehicle for its talented troupe of female actors, audience members never would have gotten to witness that cast’s extraordinary performances.
Chelsea Hooker plays a strong, serious, straightforward General Othello, a dominating military presence on the stage, one who trusts her subordinate Iago more than she should, much to her ultimate sorrow. Her descent into a woman riven by jealousy and suspicion may be troubling to the audience, which is exactly as it should be.
Born to play Iago
And what of Jennifer Brunker’s Iago? Playing one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Brunker lives up to the role almost as if she’d been born to play it.
In Brunker’s portrayal, Iago schemes to have her revenge on Othello for passing her over for a coveted promotion. With soliloquies and asides to the audience, she clearly and cleverly sets forth her unfolding plot to ensnare not only Othello but others whom she has grown to despise.
One of those is Cassio, well played by Mary Heyl (whom “Pinkalicious” audiences last month saw portraying Mrs. Pinkerton). Heyl’s Cassio, a good soldier, also appears immune to any suspicion regarding Iago’s expanding web of deceit.
Desdemona, whom Othello weds then falls prey to unjust jealousy stirred up by Iago, is played with restraint, submissiveness and even resignation by Daniel Jameson until the climactic scene, bathed in red light and ominous music, as he begs, prays, argues and then fights unsuccessfully for his life.
Emilia, who is Iago’s spouse and Desdemona’s servant, and played by John Cormier, knows Iago better than anyone else, but even he misses the true intentions of the wily Iago and puts the fateful handkerchief into her possession to launch the final deadly sequence of events. Later, seeing how Iago deceived him, Emilia exposes her treachery at the end, for which he pays dearly.
Kathleen Mitchell’s Roderigo, who once had eyes for Desdemona and is jealous of Othello, becomes another pawn in Iago’s scheme, only to learn too late that her own death at Iago’s hands bothers the evil plotter not in the slightest.
Others in the cast are Pat Desmond as Bianca, Lucy Given as the Duke of Venice, Stefanie Sambrano as Gratiano, Margaret Leisenheimer as Lodovico, Dave Roden as Brabantio, and Rose Blume, Aubrey Stennen and Rachel Weinfeld as attendants.
The female-dominated cast really came through on this one. In one big scene, I counted nine women and four men on the stage, and more often than not, women alone carry the dialog and action.
Kudos to director Jennifer J. Hopkins and her talented cast for figuring out how to turn “Othello” into a women’s story. As the bard might have put it, where there’s a Will, there’s a way.
“Othello,” in two acts, will be performed Sundays and Wednesdays, July 10-31, at 7:30 p.m. at Soldiers and Sailors Park. Admission is free, although donations are accepted.
Note to readers: Jim Dunn is editor and general manager of the Bureau County Republican.