Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's recent review of Steel Magnolias
"That old black magic has me in its spell,
And as he sings, he grabs a phone to report to Desdemona's father that his daughter is being topped by the Black Moor.
The first seed is planted. The film noir mood of ultimate doom already engulfs the dark, ominous environment in this engrossing, stunning and unsettling Othello that so powerfully speaks to the current rise of troubles, both racist and sexist, in our own country.
From the first moments he steps on the stage, Johnny Moreno sends chills down one's spine in the way his Iago smoothly slinks like a viper–moving so flexibly with bends and bows of the body, with hands reaching out with fingers grasping at air as he smiles with a confidence that belies his evil intents. Each time Othello refers to Iago as "honest," "good," and a man of "trust," we remember the ape-like gesture he quickly makes when speaking cynically of Othello to Roderigo, who himself is being pulled into this black spider's web to be a part of his emerging plans to bring down a man Iago outwardly admits he hates.
How eerie it is to be the audience to Iago's step-by-step planning as he slides from one spotlight to the next, outlining his latest strategy into the held mike. Seemingly unsure at first which direction he will proceed, he finally announces, "I got it," as the final pieces fall into place for how he will use innocent and naïve Cassio to be a foil to inflame Othello's jealousy and bring ruin to the general who overlooked him as his next lieutenant.
Like a stand-up comedian in a nightclub, he steps time and again into the spot to interact with his audience; but never is there anything funny in the diabolical tones, the slithering mannerisms, or the deadly intent of eyes that are hidden behind his dark glasses. Remembering when he callously sings Louis Jordan's "Never Let Your Left Hand Know What Your Right Hand's Doin'," the image of Johnny Moreno's Iago even now a day later causes me to shudder.
His target, Othello (Aldo Billingslea), is nothing short of refined, charming, and impressively spoken when we first meet him. Shakespeare's iambic pentameter lines roll off his tongue so naturally that this Othello is modern, accomplished, and to be admired, just by his speech alone. Aldo Billingslea provides few, if any, early hints of the emotional, mental, and psychological breakdown that is soon to occur. He is passionately and unashamedly demonstrative of his love for his new bride Desdemona. His eventual metamorphosis into a full-fledge monster is all the more horrific because Aldo Billingslea is able at first to make us believe that maybe this particular Othello will not be taken in by Iago's outlandish insinuations and will in fact continue to love his beautiful, accomplished bride. When he quite ignores Iago's initial insinuations of Desdemona's infidelity, we hope that the "green-eyed monster" of jealousy will this time pass him by; but we have also just heard his Othello say with eerie prediction, "But I do love her, and when I am out of love, chaos will come again."
As a physically monstrous Othello emerges step-by-step, we witness a Jekyll-Hyde transformation. Aldo Billingslea's Othello's increasing bouts of rage and fury are shattering to behold–even at one point almost choking Iago to death as he has momentary, second thoughts about Iago's accusations of his wife. As he descends further into his madness, his mouth literally freezes as it emits its vicious screams; his eyes almost pop out of his head each time Desdemona even mentions the name of Cassio; and his entire being becomes so consumed with the jealous disease Iago has infected within him that he shakes uncontrollably from head to toe. The performance is superbly masterful even if watching it is disturbingly troubling to the very core.
Surrounding these two who together march others toward a destiny of undeserved destruction are two wives, Desdemona (Charisse Loriaux) and Emilia (Judith Miller). Desdemona appears barely past her teen years and obviously dedicated to her new groom and head-over-heels in love with him as a girl who has found her first love. She exudes a sense of innocence and naivite. She shows no hesitation to be open about her close friendship with Cassio and in fact does flirt a bit with him as any young woman might do with a friend who is much closer to her age than her graying husband. She is not about to stop pestering her husband in a loving, playful, but ever-persistent mode to reconsider a demotion he gives to Cassio (after a drunken night of club dancing and drinking, all orchestrated by Iago on the lightweight drinker, Cassio). She also seems to miss all clues as to how much her childish bantering is upsetting her newlywed husband.
As Othello's suspicions become more intense and his anger begins to take over, Charisse Loriaux's performance proportionately intensifies in multiple dimensions to a climax where she succumbs in shocked disbelief while still purporting her love for a husband who is about to kill her. In doing so, she reminds us how easy it is for a young woman in our society to fall into the sway and obedience of an attractive, publicly renowned man who so dominates and powers over her. In the #MeToo era, her Desdemona is a warning signal of how this seductive dominance can happen to almost anyone. Her final demise is one of the most shockingly realistic death scenes I personally have ever witnessed on stage–one in which the last breath comes long and slow–an immensely unsettling scene of a husband's jealous violence against his defenseless wife.
As Iago's wife Emilia (and also the Duke of Venice), Judith Miller adds yet one more powerhouse performance to this exceptional ensemble. With consonants that collide on her tongue with power and surety, her Emilia is a strong personality who weakens at the last moment to turn Desdemona's doom. She is often peering through a back screen at the deceptions occurring, yet she never steps forward to intercede, maybe not ever believing until too late the deceptions of her oft-honored and -trusted husband.
But when Judith Miller steps into a nightclub's spotlight to sing in strong, smoky voice Dinah Washington's 1950s jazz hit, "I Could Have Told You," it is clear that this Emilia has had premonitions of the terror, even if she could not bring herself to believe them or to share in time with Desdemona. This song is one more piece of evidence that including music in this Othello works brilliantly to illuminate in new and revealing ways the text of the Bard:
"I could have told you he'd hurt you,
Her final rage against the lies of her husband and against the murdering Othello combined with the expression of despair for the dying Desdemona capstone a performance in excellence well beyond that of any Emilia I personally have seen on stage.
As Cassio, Davied Morales looks and acts barely older than a teenager, a nice guy anyone would immediately like. That he is duped by Iago is easy to believe because he is so good-natured and (like Emilia) totally naïve of the true nature of Iago, whom he calls "my honest friend."
Also at times like an overgrown schoolboy with emotions running wildly up and down like a rollercoaster is Nick Mandracchia as Roderigo–a supposed friend of Iago who believes Desdemona should be his wife and who becomes a too-easy puppet to Iago's fiendish schemes, believing he can still win her hand once Othello is out of the picture. But like Cassio, Roderigo's naivite runs rampant through the veins of his oft-frenetic body; his too-easily-given trust leads to a powerfully acted demise that involves them both.
Elenor Irene Paul is the dressed-to-kill Bianca, the unashamedly sexy, bedtime diversion of Cassio who becomes yet another instrument in Iago's evil plan to undo Othello via Cassio. Michael Storm is the hot-blooded, outwardly racist father of Desdemona, Brabantio, who arrives at the Duke's quarters with bat in hand to scornfully and righteously oppose the marriage of his daughter to a Black man.
Robert Pickering's design of a dark, brooding, basement-like nightclub setting is made complete by the harsh spotlights against a black floor as well as shadowed slants of sun trying to peep through the darkness of deceit, with the potent lighting designed by Maurice Vercoutere. Steve Schoenbeck brings jazz club atmosphere into aural reality through his sound design while Jean Cardinale's costume designs outfit men in designer black suits with ties and women in striking, elegant and sleek solid-color outfits.
Even if one has seen Othello a dozen times, the current production of the Shakespeare classic by San Jose Stage Company is one not to be missed. The surprising addition of jazz-infused music, the 1950s film-noir feel, the masterful direction, and the sheer acting prowess of the cast are all reasons to grab a ticket today to a play that appears to have been conceived in 2023 and not in 1603.
Othello runs through June 25, 2023, at San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thestage.org.