Claustrophobic, emotional, and—at times—an exceedingly loud affair, Avant Bard’s staging of Othello is a moving modern day interpretation of the Shakespeare classic. Set in a military submarine in the Middle East, the play follows the unraveling of Othello as he is led to believe that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful. In this adaptation, however, the leading character is also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Othello is more than just a man struggling with PTSD: he is the shadowy face of mental illness come to life, the epitome of the transformative effects of war. Especially relevant in our times of political uncertainty and global military interventions, the play speaks volumes about the mental health crisis among the nation’s returning soldiers. At the start of the nearly three-hour play, Othello is clearly in command of both his military duties and his emotions. He is well-intentioned, respectful, and enamored with Desdemona, yet he quickly dissolves into a suspicious man teeming with insecurities. Chuck Young, who stars as Othello, gives an excellent performance of a man teetering on the edge of instability. With every impassioned, pained bit of dialogue, Young resurrects Shakespeare’s Othello and is, by the end, a portrait of raw anguish.
The perfect counterpart to the leading man is the scheming Iago, played by Frank Britton, who convinces Othello that his wife is cheating on him. From the very moment that Britton enters the stage, it becomes clear that he is one to watch. Alternately coaxing, manipulative, and conniving, Iago—or “Honest Iago” as Othello calls him—orchestrates the demise of his friend with ease. Occasionally, Britton’s speech sounds slightly garbled, as if he is struggling with Shakespeare’s flowery words, yet his performance is ultimately thrilling and infuses much-needed humor into the play.
At this point, the play has had enough run-throughs that the rest of the cast falls in line seamlessly. A lot of yelling punctuates most of Othello, which—though annoying at times—helps add to the mounting anxiety of the performance. Still, there are no faulty performances. Sun King Davis is a solid, bold Casio, while Jay Hardee is quite funny in his role as Roderigo. Sara Barker’s Desdemona, however, could be a bit more spirited. Though Barker offers tears and some passionate denials of the claims made against her, her performance feels a touch too placid.
Ultimately, Arlington’s tiny Theatre on the Run is a great venue in which to see Othello. The low-frills theater and pared-down set help showcase the strength of the actors, and the focus on PTSD lends an interesting, insightful angle to the story. Visitors can also walk-through a mini-exhibition titled Veterans Healing Through Art, which feautures artworks created by veterans suffering from PTSD. Funded by The 296 project, a non-profit organization that offers extensive art therapy resources to wounded veterans, the exhibition helps bridge the fiction in Othello with the unfortunate reality that many people grapple with post-combat.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography:
1. Chuck Young (Othello), Alyssa Sanders (Emilia).
2. Alyssa Sanders (Emilia), Frank Britton (Iago).
3. Chuck Young (Othello), Sara Barker (Desdemona).
Othello runs until March 1, 2015 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA 22206.