One of the lesser-known perks of participating in theater at a small liberal arts school is that many times, rather than choosing talent to fit into the production, productions are chosen based on the talent available. The exceptional talent of theater major Lukecus King (senior) convinced director and chair of the theater department John Bouchard that Occidental was finally ready to bring “Othello” to Keck Theater.
William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” based on a short story by Cinthio, is a timeless tragedy of love, jealousy, racism and betrayal. Othello, a Venetian general played by King, secretly marries, much to her father’s dismay, Desdemona, played by theater major Stephanie Wong (senior). It is also to the dismay of Iago, Othello’s ensign, played by guest artist Daniele Manzin ’09, who spends the rest of the play deviously trying to ruin Othello for reasons never fully revealed. He decides the most effective route to his demise is to convince the general, Cassio, played by theater major and Weekly staff member Will Westwater (sophomore), that his wife is sleeping with him.
“I have a bucket list of plays I want to do. Hamlet was one of those, and I had an actor I thought could play Hamlet, so we did Hamlet,” Bouchard said. “Othello was another. I thought, I [finally] have an actor I believed could do Othello.”
A role as demanding as Othello, which requires an extreme range of emotions as well as the stamina to maintain believability for over two hours, warrants patient waiting for the right actor to come along. From his tender and heartwarming embraces with Desdemona in the opening scenes, to his passionate, tormented and dithering murder at the end, King certainly proves he was worth the wait.
“The difficulty for me was finding how to get to these extremes and stay there the whole time,” King said. “Thank God for rehearsal and the beautiful Desdemona, and just hard work and dedication.”
It is no secret that the play is naturally dark, and the role of Iago is as equally daunting in and of itself.
“Iago is almost the opposite in terms of the actor’s challenge,” Bouchard said. “The challenge is you don’t want to play an overtly creepy Iago, [but] you can’t play an Iago that the audience thinks is too genuine. It’s a really tight little window you have to play in, and you have to do it for the entire play.”
The theater department traditionally casts at least one guest artist per Shakespeare production to serve, in part, as a model for student actors. The challenging nature of Iago’s character warranted such a guest artist like Manzin.
As powerful as their performances were — and they truly were exquisite — English and Comparative Literary Studies (ECLS) and theater double major Savannah Gilmore (junior) stole the show as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s attendant, Emilia. Though her character acts as an observer for the bulk of the show, Gilmore consistently teems with energy from scene to scene. Her mounting frustration and anxiety over Othello and Iago’s mistreatment of Desdemona floods the room with merely a facial expression or gesture. Come the final scene, after Emilia learns Othello has murdered his wife, she erupts in a downright chilling monologue that must have raised every hair on every arm in the audience.
“The way we [decided I should] play Emilia is that her husband abuses her and that made it much more human to me and easier to play. But it is really difficult,” Gilmore said.
Wong and Gilmore together were an intensely commanding duo. Wong as Desdemona matched Emilia’s composure, cynicism and wisdom with veritable vulnerability, trust and naivete.
“I think the key into the role was belief in Othello as this wondrous human being, and the idea that the only other male figure in my life has been my father. And being transferred to Othello, and having nothing else left,” Wong said. “My love was the only thing I knew was real. At the end, [the key was] disbelief and faith in something that is killing her.”
Othello continues Apr. 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m., Apr. 28 at 2 p.m. and May 17 at 7:30 pm in Keck Theater. Tickets are $10 for students, faculty and seniors (+55), and $15 for general public.