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'Othello' review: Shakespeare at Vanderbilt mansion

In his adaptation of Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece, Frederic DeFeis recasts Othello from a war hero of Moorish descent to a colonial Angolan. DeFeis, founding director of Arena Players and its annual Shakespeare festival, even retitled the play from "Othello, the Moor of Venice" to "Othello, the Black of Angola."

Wherever Othello would be referred to as "the Moor" -- in its time, a derogatory term denoting dark skin -- he's called instead "the black." As spoken by Iago, Othello's pernicious antagonist posing as an ally, the effect is to make his motives appear racist. From the original text, we surmise that Iago hates Othello because he passed him over in favor of Cassio for promotion. But when Dean Schildkraut, monstrously obsessive as Iago, proclaims with a sneer, "I hate the black," he seems motivated by disgust with miscegenation -- Othello's marriage to fair Desdemona.

In DeFeis' version, Othello wages war for Portugal, not Venice, because Angola was long a Portuguese colony. Aside from the geographic shift, DeFeis also contemporizes language and dress. When Desdemona's father (a senatorial Matt Cassidy) learns of her marriage, he declares, "Oh, unhappy girl! With the black, you say?" instead of "With the Moor, sayest thou?"

Soon we meet the couple -- she in a short, satiny cocktail dress, he in battle fatigues.

Mary Caulfield makes a strikingly convincing Desdemona, so swept away by this unexpected romance that she can't imagine infidelity. Not even with former suitor Roderigo (wounded and vulnerable as played by Tyler Williams) or handsome Cassio (nobly flawed as portrayed by Evan Donnellan), who beseeches Desdemona to intercede for him when he falls out of favor because of a drunken fight engineered by Iago. The ploy fuels Othello's simmering jealousy sown by Iago with insinuations and a purloined handkerchief that was the general's gift to his bride. Jes Almeida blends denial with rage as Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant.

Mark Swinson as Othello cuts a commanding figure that becomes terrifying in the climactic bed chamber scene, after Caulfield sweetly delivers a wistful original song by DeFeis' son, David. Swinson projects just enough innocent gullibility that we believe he's ripe for Iago's machinations.

The Vanderbilt mansion plays its part in scenes taking advantage of the clock tower and outdoor staircase, while the full moon added a haunting touch Friday night.


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