Although Shakespeare’s plays were written for all-male performance, modern unigender productions, especially of the tragedies, usually come off as gratuitous and trivial. Happily, the all-female “Othello” from the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company can’t be dismissed as a drag stunt. Co-production with and at the Theater @ Boston Court is artfully conceived and psychologically astute, not seamlessly executed but consistently interesting. This is an “Othello” to savor.
Production’s lucidity begins with the inspired choice of 1930s Italy as the period of decor, with a stage full of high black boots, brown shirts and leather straps serving as a constant reminder of a macho military culture in stark contrast to the femininity of its camp followers. Helmer Lisa Wolpe effectively substitutes guns for rapiers, and Senator Brabantio (Mary Cobb) is wittily informed of his daughter’s marriage by wind-up telephone.
Fascist salutes are absent, thank goodness, but Mussolini’s ill-fated Ethiopian intervention — a neat parallel to Venice’s Cyprus misadventures — can be seen in the clay walls of Susan Gratch’s massive three-tiered unit set, evoking both Globe Theater facade and Casbah and encouraging the rush of simultaneous action that fuels play’s thrills.
Fran Bennett’s imperious Othello seems beholden to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the austere aristocrat convinced of others’ witlessness. This is an older Moor than most, meaning many more years of having suffered Venetian slights and condescensions, every one of which can be counted in Bennett’s tight, humorless visage. At the outset we’re plainly signaled that winning Desdemona (Nell Geisslinger), daughter of privilege, is an act as much of vengeance as desire.
Godlike entitlement and inerrancy are the tragic flaws in this most Coriolanus-like of Othellos. When rumored faithlessness of wife and underlings shakes his entire worldview, pride permits confiding only in the meek little carabinieri in the corner who always follows orders: Iago (Wolpe), inciter of those very rumors and, in a fascinating way, victim of the same moral weakness as his boss.
Wolpe’s muted, weaselly sergeant, careful to reveal his machinations to no one but us in soliloquy, makes helmer’s case for jealousy and class resentment as adequate motivations for Iago’s iniquity. A messy five o’clock shadow permanently brands him as proletarian upstart, and his diminutive stature renders Napoleonic dreams of manipulation as (literally) small wonder. (Wolpe’s transformation completely disguises any sense of a woman under that tunic, which may or may not be the gender question company most wants to pose.)
Geisslinger’s Desdemona is a voluptuous but sexually inexperienced woman in her early 30s, Soojin Lee’s stunning peach silk gown conveying the former and thesp’s wearing of it the latter. This Desdemona overly dotes on her beloved as anyone in late first love might, while her developed intelligence and spirit could clearly strike the feckless Moor as fodder for adultery. Geisslinger’s piteous confusion leads to the requisite terror as her murder looms.
A second directorial eye might have led Wolpe to more varied line readings, and she seems to have slighted the supporting players. Hapless swain Roderigo must drive plot and add comedy, but Linda Bisesti flounders at both. Conception of Emilia (Katrinka Wolfson) as a wisecracking Eve Arden never places her in the same class, let alone the same room, as husband Iago, and Kimberleigh Aarn offers just a stiff of a Cassio.
Still, the central trio make or breaks any “Othello,” and all their scenes are skillfully shaped and exciting, augmented by Jaymi Lee Smith’s sensual light and smoke effects.