The all-female production of Othello at Taffety Punk, directed by Kelsey Mesa, is a breath of fresh air. Because all the characters are played by women, you forget that they are female after a few minutes, and just enjoy the performances. Fortunately, they are deeply satisfying. The mastery of language is notable. The depth and terror of Othello and Desdemona’s predicament rises as the evening progresses. An all-female cast provides an opportunity for a novel approach to this popular work. Once again, the Riot Grrrls achieve their mission of promoting gender parity in theatre.
Critical views of Othello, and its approach to patriarchy and racism, have been, to say the least, numerous. There are Marxist interpretations, feminist interpretations, and others which focus on the African elements of Othello’s identity. The Taffety Punks have made the wise choice of focusing on the relationships.
Danielle A. Drakes portrays Othello as a gifted leader who has fallen deeply in love. This Othello’s military talents inspire the kind of respect that comes from an instinctive understanding of the abilities of others. Like Caesar in Julius Caesar, Othello provokes jealousy and obsession. But this Othello, at first, is far more sympathetic, which makes the tragedy even more devastating. Drakes is a powerful presence, and she handles the contradictions in Othello’s personality with fierceness and skill.
Lise Bruneau as Iago seethes with resentment from the very beginning. Dressed more simply than the others, she seems to enjoy recounting Iago’s brilliant strategic initiatives. She displays a consciousness of intellectual superiority and lower status that renders her incandescent with rage. Her last line, “From this time I never will speak more,” is the high point of an extraordinary performance.
Desdemona, as played by Julie Weir, has the innocence and honesty we expect for the role. Her relationship with Othello is persuasive and believable, even as it collapses. There is no doubt at all that this Desdemona is the self-sacrificing feminine ideal her husband first believed her to be. She blames not her husband but herself for the tragedy which overtakes her.
Liz Daingerfield essays the roles of the Duke as well as Ludovico. Her energy and attack are impressive, and she has an originality which adds depth to these characters. Tonya Beckman is sophisticated and overcome with anger as Brabantio. She then brings us an Emilia who is worldly-wise, loves her mistress, and proudly speaks the truth even when it is inconvenient. She is a more complex, modern woman than Desdemona, aware of the flaws of men and unwilling to blame herself for everything that goes wrong. Stefany Pesta turns in a strong performance as the good-hearted Montano, and is excellent as the love-lorn prostitute, Bianca. Teresa Spencer is remarkable as Cassio: she has mastered some masculine mannerisms with dexterity. She is also credited with Fight Choreography.
Director Mesa has staged the play in the round. Because the play is so tightly focused, the intimate space works well. The acting of the ensemble is deeply connected and reflects the exceptional commitment the cast brings to the production.
Costume Design by Elizabeth Haley Morton is cleverly casual; most of the actors wear suit jackets, except for Desdemona and Bianca. Kristin Hamby’s Sound Design features some contemporary music as well as well-planned sound effects. Lighting Design, by Katie McCreary, is utilized successfully to underline key emotional crises.
To those who criticize the use of nontraditional casting, this Othello has an important message. Everyone has much to offer Shakespeare. Everyone deserves representation and equality. It is true that nontraditional casting doesn’t always work, but there is no type of casting which virtually always works. The Riot Grrrls are redressing the gender imbalance in theatre by giving a female slant to the works of the ultimate Dead White Male Genius.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Othello plays through October 12, 2019, at Taffety Punk Theatre Company, performing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street, SE, Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.