Shedding New Light on Othello

Othello - New Light Theatre

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A celebrity of color marries into a prominent, and decidedly white, political family. Haters come out of the woodwork and manipulate the situation to the detriment of the young couple. Though I could be describing Megxit, a story straight out of today’s headlines, I am referring to the plot in Shakespeare’s tragic play Othello. In Shakespeare’s tale, General Othello, a dark-skinned Moor, freshly victorious in war, marries a white senator’s daughter–much to the chagrin of Venetian society. I had the opportunity to be in the opening night audience of New Light Theatre’s production of Othello. In his Director’s Note, Allen Radway described the challenges and the gratification of putting on this 400-year-old tragedy for modern audiences. “…Othello reveals a different story in each age and place it’s told, as cultural identities and national beliefs shift and evolve over time in every country where the play is staged.” So, what does Othello look like in Wilmington, DE, in 2020…in the hands of New Light Theatre?

According to their mission statement, New Light Theatre is “a nonprofit professional theatre company based out of Delaware, committed to bringing light to the darkness by creating theatre that raises awareness and support for causes that improve the human condition.”  In terms of social justice tie-ins that could be made as response to Othello, the possibilities seem limitless; the play raises questions (but provides few answers) on the themes of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia to name a few. For this production of Othello, NLT chose to home in on “the ways in which toxic masculinity destroys men and non-male identifying people alike.”  To this end, NLT is partnering with, raising money for, and shedding their light on The Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence. This partnership makes itself known immediately. From the lobby, we were ushered into the theater by a sobering squad of to-scale, wooden, red silhouettes representing and naming local victims who died due to family violence in one calendar year. They set the tone for the tragedy and convincing acts of simulated domestic violence we were about to witness.

NLT does not have a dedicated theater. This production takes place on the second floor of the Delaware History Society Museum in a large open room that was transformed into a theater (chairs on risers, stage lights attached to structural beams).  NLT made the most of the space. A unit set done up in bruising purples, blues, and black, and lit with dozens of candles conjured a heavy mood for both exterior and interior scenes.

Another artistic choice, NLT used contemporary clothing, particularly American style, dessert-issue, military fatigues (which really popped against the dark backgrounds) as a bridge between a centuries-old story and our current societal struggles. We, the audience, could not comfortably sit back and watch, could not feel as though we are generations removed from the hate-fueled violence. Shakespeare wouldn’t have allowed for it anyway. He wrote this play in such a way– from the point of view of the master manipulator, Iago—that makes us all co-conspirators in his agenda of hate. This production, in particular doubled-down on audience discomfort.  When Edward Snyder, as Iago, delivered his monologs, in which he lays out his schemes, he spoke directly to the audience. Several times, he seemed to look me straight in the eye—making me complicit in his mad machinations. I tried not to squirm.

The play is sublimely acted. Delaware, for a small state, has a deep pool of Shakespearean talent. I’ve stopped being surprised by the level of talent in local shows. In this case, it is even hard to name standouts. To be sure, Newton Buchanan and Lena Mucchetti, as Othello and Desdemona (and co-founders, along with Radway, of NLT) deserve recognition for anchoring the cast in strong performances, but even those with smaller parts gave nuanced performances. Though Othello isn’t as fast-moving or complicated a story as other Shakespeare’s plays, I was transfixed as the struggles played out. Time seemed to fly. (Here I must note that although the website says the play runs from 7:30-9:30 PM, it was 10:50 when we were giving our ovations. Keep that in mind when planning your evening.)

I have never seen Othello performed live. It is a great play to dissect in high school English, but a difficult play to pull off well on stage. I applaud the choice of NLT to take on the task. It is an apt, though unflattering, mirror of current American society with our immigration atrocities, #MeToo stories, hate groups, and dueling ideologies. Radway says in his director’s notes that each production of Othello “reveals a different story in each age and place it’s told,” but I am going to take this a step further and say that you could attend this production of Othello and come away every single night with new insights– and inner grapplings. Lots to unpack on this trip to the theater, but first…get thee a ticket.

New Light Theatre presents William Shakespeare’s Othello, January 29 through February 2, 2020, at the Delaware Historical Society, 505 N. Market Street; Wilmington, DE. Tickets $15-20. For more information or to purchase tickets, check out New Life Theatre website.

 For more information on The Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence check out their website. Domestic Violence Hotline for New Castle County is 302-762-6110.