Contemporary costume and casting choices help drive home the timeless themes of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’

By Shanee Edwards5

A war in the Middle East waged by the world’s strongest, wealthiest army sounds like a plot plucked from today’s headlines.

But this is “Othello,” a play written 400 years ago that remains just as relevant today on the strength of Shakespeare’s uncanny ability to understand and wax poetic about humanity’s greatest flaws.

A new production of “Othello” opening Friday at the Odyssey Theatre uses unconventional costume and casting choices to drive home its themes of jealousy, bigotry, betrayal and violence in accessible and poignant ways, probing deeply into machinations of war that seem shockingly similar to today’s highly sophisticated military culture.

In this production, the actors wear contemporary military fatigues and Othello the Moor is played by actor A Martinez, who is of Mexican, Spanish and Native American descent.

Though director John Perrin Flynn stays true to the original play by keeping the characters as members of the Venetian Army on a military base in Cypress, the decision to dress the cast in present-day military garb is meant to lower any perceived barriers to the meaning within Shakespeare’s tragedy.

“When you see it, you have a visceral reaction. When these guys come out in camouflage uniforms it makes it much closer to your own experience. You’re not allowed to go, ‘Oh, this is classic times with swords or the Three Musketeers.’ It makes it immediate. The story being told is not so different than today’s stories,” said Flynn, a Venice resident and artistic director of L.A.’s Rogue Machine Theater (where Anna DiGiovanni, who plays Desdemona, recently starred in “Lost Girls”).

“I come from a military family,” Flynn said. “When soldiers go to war, they find they are no longer fighting for the girl back home; they’re no longer fighting for the country or the idea. They’re fighting to save the life of the man who’s fighting next to him. That bond lasts forever.”

Othello and Iago start out with such a bond, but the relationship quickly turns toxic as jealousy and resentment cast their shadows over the men.

“It is really difficult to have a bosom friend, someone that you trust deeply. When you share that, the value of it is something so profound. In terms of the way we’re building the story, [Martinez, the actor playing Othello] and I have looked at their past to create that possible relationship so that the betrayal means more,” said actor Jack Stehlin, who plays Iago.

“I know what it means to be jealous to an irrational degree. Iago calls it the ‘green-eyed monster’ because you can literally see things that aren’t there, see things that don’t exist when you’re sufficiently wrought,” adds Martinez, who also plays Jacob Nighthorse in the television series “Longmire.”

Stehlin also draws parallels to American soldiers sent off to Afghanistan or Iraq.

“All the reports of all these horrible tragedies from people who come back, and the reports of post-traumatic stress and people who are not well after war — it has a lot to do with what’s going on in this play,” said Stehlin, who played Capt. Roy Till on “Weeds.”

While wanting to his production to reflect aspects of the modern American military experience, Flynn says he’s not trying to send any specific message about the armed forces.

“I’m a person who has mixed feelings about war. As an artist, I’m not so interested in having a point of view about it rather than presenting how it is, so you can think about what is going on. I think our job is to ask questions, not to give answers, so that we begin to look at how we are, why we are and what we’re doing,” he said.

The choice to go against traditional casting for Othello, a character played mostly by African-American actors over the past several decades, isn’t a statement on race, Flynn said.

“He’s a wonderful actor. He was the best actor I had to play the role. Yes, Othello is a Moor, traditionally played by African-American actors. Moors are Arabic, from Northern Africa. But casting Martinez felt like it was also valid.”

For Martinez, Othello’s plight is more about being an outsider than being of a different race.

“The way [Flynn] pitched it to me was that, any way you cut it, it’s about a character of the other — a character who doesn’t fit into the culture in which he’s participating as an equal.”

“Othello” opens at 8 p.m. Friday and continues through Dec. 14 at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $30. Call (310) 477-2055, ext. 2, or visit odysseytheatre.com.

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