Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of The Flick

James Vincent Meredith and Michael Milligan
Photo by Liz Lauren
Chicago Shakespeare's production of this tragedy is part of a city-wide celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, but British director Jonathan Munby has given us a modern dress Othello that feels very contemporary. It's not just that Linda Cho's costumes include army fatigues and dress uniforms that look very familiar and appropriate for the Bard's tale of the Moorish general, or that Alexander Dodge's set is a realistic looking military base with chain link fences topped with barbed wire. Nor is it Philip Rosenberg's ominous lighting design that combines harsh lights and florescent lighting with shadowy, threatening schemes. It's that, even at three hours including intermission, the piece moves as furiously as a '40s noir film updated for today's audiences. True enough, this Shakespearean tragedy is very plot-driven to begin with, but Munby gives it a pace and tension that grab us quickly and don't let go.

Of course the source of this tension is the villainous Iago—maybe the best-written villain ever—and this production has a great Iago in Michael Milligan. An actor with credits on Broadway and in leading regional theaters all over the country, and per his program bio a recent transplant to Chicago, he gives us a multi-layered and intriguing Iago. To borrow from Julius Caesar (which Munby directed at Chicago Shakespeare three years ago), Milligan has "a lean and hungry look" but is dangerous because his sociopathic tendencies aren't evident on the surface. To those he manipulates and betrays—Othello, Roderigo, his wife Emilia—he appears normal and trustworthy. As Hitchcock once said, "the more successful the villain, the more successful the picture," and this greatest of all villains is given a performance here quite worthy of the role.

James Vincent Meredith has the necessary rage and physical presence to communicate Othello's rage and danger. In initially appearing to be kind and generous to his wife Desdemona and his lieutenant Cassio, his turning on them so quickly after Iago causes him to suspect they are having an affair seems a bit abrupt. Even so, Meredith's sheer power carries the play to its tragic conclusion. Luigi Sottile is a lean and muscular Cassio with both the masculinity and sex appeal to be a credible romantic rival to Othello, but at the same time appearing to be a most decent man who wouldn't go there. The Stratford Festival's Bethany Jillard is a lovely and innocent Desdemona—trusting her new husband and the others around her until it's too late to save herself. As the hapless Roderigo who is fatally lured into Iago's plan as a mere pawn, Fred Geyer shows comic skill. Chicago actress Jessie Fisher also impresses as Emilia, who, like Desdemona, figures out the plot too late, but forcefully delivers some of Shakespeare's most feminist rhetoric before she goes.

Munby's Othello is a muscular and sexy one. With just four women in the cast—the lovely Melissa Carlson is cast as the Duke of Venice in addition to Laura Rook's very funny turn as a sexy Italian accented Bianca—the sexual tension among the soldiers is palpable. We see how women are in short supply on this military outpost on the island of Cyprus and how it's driving the soldiers crazy. In a nod to the film Top Gun, the soldiers even serenade Desdemona with a chorus of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." Munby's production is a great addition to the Shakespeare 400 Chicago celebration. It's the real deal with the original text, and a modern dress concept that is not at all contrived but makes the story more accessible to today's audiences without compromising the original intent.

Othello will play the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through April 10, 2016. For tickets or further information visit or call 312-595-5600.

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