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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

HTP gives ‘Othello’ a successful steampunk twist

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

PHOTO BY Alan Tran/The Hoot

Last weekend Hold Thy Peace (HTP) put on a spectacular production of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.”

In a modern approach, co-directors Jane Becker ’11 and Emily Dunning ’11 staged a steampunk “Othello.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that takes place in the past in an alternate timeline in which many modern technologies exist but are powered by steam.

The steampunk undertone to the show thankfully did not change the feel of the play at all. The only real difference was that rather than experience racism for being dark-skinned, Othello experiences racism for being the only person lacking steam-powered implants. The steampunk theme seemed to be the most evident between scenes, while the run crew was changing the set. At these times, an eerie red glow would backlight the stage while sound effects of gears clanking and steam hissing filled the theater.

The costumes also reflected the steampunk sub-genre; although the set and the costumes looked old-fashioned, each character had metallic parts attached to their costumes and had metallic face-paint. Needless to say, it looked really cool. One of the neatest costumes was worn by Gratiana (Zanna Nevins ’12); it featured a form-fitting suit with a riding crop that gave her a dominatrix-like vibe as well as a gold, cage-like contraption strapped to her head with leather straps. Nevins rocked the look with her steely exterior.

The set looked simple, with wooden platforms of varying levels covering the stage. The actors climbed around the set and looked entirely natural except when they had to climb down the back, which looked a bit awkward. The very few special effects were good but unneeded. When the characters first get to Cyprus, a storm was simulated with flashing lights and the sound of rain. While this helped set the scene, the noise drowned out the actors, making it impossible to hear what they were saying. Despite this one moment, the actors projected their voices well and could be heard at all other times, even though they were not using microphones.

What made the show so enjoyable, however, was the amazing acting by the cast. Each line that Jonathan Plesser ’12 delivered as Othello made an impact due to Plesser’s clear voice and emotive face. One of the best scenes in the play was the final one, in which Othello kills Desdemona (Caitlin Partridge ’13). Plesser and Partridge had great chemistry together, each actor bringing out the best in the other. Partridge’s muffled screams as Plesser suffocated her with a pillow chilled the blood.

The final scene in the first half of the show also struck a chord. In this scene, Iago (Lenny Somervell ’12) tells Othello that his Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with his second-in-command Cassio (Walker Stern ’13). This scene was incredibly emotional with a conniving Somervell and an emotionally overcome Plesser. During this scene, Somervell and Plesser completely ignored the set and did not make use of any props, instead relying entirely on the power of Shakespeare’s words and their own acting skills. It was an incredibly effective scene.

Somervell also had incredible chemistry with Jenna Schlags ’12, who played Emilia, Iago’s wife. Despite being played by two girls, the married couple’s repartee was aptly timed and incredibly well-acted. Schlags also gave a thrilling performance in the final scene, when Emilia confronts Othello, who has just murdered Desdemona. Schlags looked as if she were about to burst into tears and was nearly shaking from the anger she felt. Her death was heart-wrenching.

Although many scenes in “Othello” are dark, depressing and tragic, Shakespeare understood the need for comic relief. Thankfully, this gloomy play has the character Roderigo, played brilliantly Andrew Prentice ’13. Roderigo is skillfully manipulated by Iago to stalk Desdemona and Othello and to begin a fight with Cassio, which ultimately leads to his death. Although this sounds depressing, Prentice brought the much-needed comedy to “Othello.” Every time he “stealthily” crept his way on stage to converse with Somervell, Prentice got laughs as he manipulated his lanky body. When Somervell would insult or upset him, Prentice seemed to wilt and have a hangdog look on his face. After Somervell would give him orders to carry out, Prentice would run off stage in a manic panic. Prentice was able to be funny for most of the show but, during his death scene, he was able to switch off the comic aspect of his character and convey the gravitas of the scene admirably.

Stern’s Cassio was similar in that he could be very funny at times yet terribly serious at others. During the scene of Cassio’s fall from Othello’s favor, Stern had to display many emotions. In the beginning of the scene, he was incredibly humorous as the inebriated lieutenant. Placing his hand on Somervell’s shoulder, he intoned in mock seriousness, “This is my right hand.” Then, holding up his other hand, he said in a perfect imitation of a drunken idiot, “And this is my left.” By the end of the scene, however, he was bringing tears to the audience’s eyes as he sat on the stage, dejected, pounding his fist against the floor, crying out “Reputation!” as he bemoaned his loss of it.

The middle of this scene contained the first fight between Cassio and Roderigo, broken up by Othello. While the fight was well-choreographed it was not very credible. Stern is much taller than Plesser, and it was hard to believe that the smaller, not steam-powered implant-enhanced Othello could best Cassio in a physical altercation.

Although every actor in the show cannot be mentioned, they were all fantastic. During the course of the three-hour play, they only stumbled over their difficult lines a few times and each time they recovered quickly.

When the play ended, the eerie red backlight remained for a few moments before going to blackout, leaving the already discomfited audience with a feeling of foreboding. Hold Thy Peace’s “Othello” was fantastic and left a lasting impression.