Jessika D. Williams as Othello at ASC is a marvel to behold

Whether experienced indoors, outdoors, or online, the American Shakespeare Center's 'Othello' will thrill you.

By far one of the most exciting theatrical discoveries for me has been the work of the remarkable Jessika D. Williams. Those of us lucky enough to have seen her in the the American Shakespeare Center’s webcast of Much Ado About Nothing earlier this year found an actor at the top of her game—playing the arrogant bachelor Benedick to perfection, six-pack in hand, swaggering and savoring every word, every conceivable flavor of Shakespeare’s language with a wit and bite you’ll have a hard time finding anywhere. Derek Jacobi once loomed large in my memory of this comic role; he’s since had to make room.

Jessika D. Williams. Photo by Lauren Parker.

From now until September 14, 2020, for online audiences (and through October 18 for live audiences who travel to Staunton), you will have the incredible privilege of seeing Williams in a role that seems truly tailor-made for her: Othello. Not only does she have the ability to channel that ramrod-straight, martial demeanor; her studied contralto range enables her to avoid some of the more awkward vocal adjustments actors are tempted to make when playing across genders. And given her considerable abilities with blank verse, the results are a marvel to behold.

Let me be brief: Othello is Williams; and Williams, Othello. That is all ye need to know.

For those who need further persuasion I will continue because, of course, Williams isn’t the only star here; John Harrell’s Iago is the consummate, charismatic villain: sarcastic, proud of his ability to con anyone within earshot, but desperate to conceal the fact that he himself has been consumed by “the green-eyed monster,” jealousy. It is Iago’s suspicions about Othello and his wife Emilia (the forceful, brilliant Constance Swain) that drive him to destroy his commanding officer utterly.

The ensemble of ‘Othello.’ Photo by Lauren Parker.

Directors Ethan McSweeny has crafted a briskly paced tragedy, turning the stage into a semi-abandoned dock with wooden pallets seemingly chucked and stacked willy-nilly and candelabras whose lights are put out, one by one, to great effect as the evening wears on.

Mia Wurgaft and Jessika D. Williams in ‘Othello.’ Photo by Lauren Parker.

Mia Wurgaft—who has such fun as one of the Viola/Sebastian twins in Twelfth Night (also in repertory, live and online, this month)—gives us a Desdemona who is dignified, intelligent, and yet helpless in the face of Othello’s wrath. And to leaven the tragedy with its comic moments, Zoe Speas (Wurgaft’s twin brother/sister in Twelfth Night) has a great turn here as Rodrigo, the spurned suitor who is so desperate for Desdemona’s love he foolishly tags along with Iago, money in purse. The parallels here between Iago and Rodrigo, and the comic duo of Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, are obvious when seen one after the other, and they render Rodrigo’s fate that much more compelling.

Perhaps the most powerful part of Williams’s performance is her descent into madness; although a little too quick on the draw early in the play, once Iago has his hooks in Othello, the slow but steady progress of jealous rage courses through her veins to terrifying effect.

As Cassio, the fellow officer whose promotion gives Iago real reason to be (professionally) jealous, Brandon Carter forces us to rethink the traditional, racially tinged narrative. Here, the story isn’t the simplistic scenario of Othello (black) jealous of Cassio (white). What we see in Carter, an actor of color, is that Othello’s jealousy has nothing to do with skin, and everything to do with heart. It’s a reminder of the many changes that have yet to be rung, and rung fruitfully, with one of the Bard’s most controversial plays.

The ensemble of ‘Othello.’ Photo by Lauren Parker.

As always, the ensemble warms up the crowd with some telling musical selections; Topher Embrey (who plays Montano, Governor of Cyprus here) teams up with Carter to perform Legend and Common’s anthem “Glory,” while Williams and Wurgaft lead into the play’s opening with the haunting “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie. At intermission, Speas regales us with Dustbowl Revival’s “Busted,” and Harrell brings down the house with a ukulele-inflected take on The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”

Whether you’re game for a live show in the safely distanced indoors of Blackfriars or lawn of the Blackburn Inn, or its BlkFrs LIVE online incarnation, this Othello will thrill you; and it will introduce you to one of Staunton’s, and our region’s, most remarkable leading talents.

Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission.

Othello is part of ASC’s “Safe Start Season,” playing in repertory with Twelfth Night at the indoors Blackfriars space (with limited audience capacity), outdoors at the Blackburn Inn, and via streaming video through BlkFrs LIVE on Marquee TV. Othello streams online through September 14, 2020, and will perform live onstage through October 18.

Twelfth Night, Othello’s companion piece, is available for on-demand purchase via BlkFrs LIVE on Marquee TV through September 8, 2020.

For information and tickets click here.

The Blackburn Inn, where ASC’s outdoor shows are hosted, offers a “Shakespeare Under the Stars” VIP Package.

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Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White (seen here taking tea at the walls of Troy) is a longtime Washington area theatre artist, whose career began with gigs at the Source Theatre (company member under Bart Whiteman) and included shows with Theatre Le Neon (company member, under Didier Rousselet) and the Capital Fringe Festival. He received his Ph.D. in Theatre History and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park with a specialty in post-classical Greek theatre and ritual. His book, "Performing Orthodox Ritual in Byzantium" marks the first of a series with Cambridge University Press, on the strange history of the Greek performing arts between Antiquity and the Renaissance.

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