Streetwise 'Othello' ratchets down a bit
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
The Honolulu Theatre for Youth has scaled down and cleaned up its hip-hop version of Shakespeare's "Othello," now on stage at the Tenney Theatre, making a difficult classic more accessible to teenagers.
Playwright Y York's adaptation debuted at HTY in 2002, with a gangsta feel, featuring an aloof disk jockey in dark glasses scratching out beats on turntables. The four-member cast was turned out in boots, camouflage and leather.
This time around, "Othello" has a designer look. Nara Cardenas' (the original Desdemona) costumes feature elegant, vaguely militaristic whites and greens. Actors wear headsets to help them project over the recorded soundtrack.
As in the original script, rap passages take the place of soliloquies and underscore the characters' inner thoughts and worries. "What To Do?" raps Iago, Desdemona delivers "Why Did I Marry?" and Othello rhymes his way through "She Is the Cause, She Must Die."
Company actor BullDog wrote new raps for the production, and again plays Iago and triple-hits as sound designer and musical director.
Under guest director and fight choreographer Tony Pisculli, this simplified, shortened "Othello" shares many of the successes and problems of the earlier production. It is straightforward, relatively easy to follow, and appealing to a young audience. But in boiling down the work to four characters and an hour's playing time, much depth and detail has been sacrificed.
The origin of Iago's evil machinations have always been an enigma to Shakespeare scholars, who may be looking too deeply from a contemporary need for motivation. It may be enough that Iago is evil simply because the playwright needed a dastardly villain and chose not to waste time explaining him.
York's version simplifies the character by showing Iago's resentment at being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio, then having his declaration of love laughed off by Desdemona with a patronizing kiss to the top of his head.
Charles Timtim returns to the role of Othello, less savage than in the original, but still imposing and inwardly troubled, too quick to give in to personal doubts when challenged with lies about Desdemona's faithfulness. His disintegration is neatly emphasized by him shedding layers of clothing until he lies on the floor in an epileptic seizure.
Elizabeth Wolfe brings nobility, stature and excellent articulation to the role of Desdemona.
Purists may object to the plot changes — eliminating the pivotal role of Emilia and rewriting Iago's ultimate fate — but some collateral damage has to result from York's significant reinterpretation concept.
The positive result is that the middle-school audience at the production I attended had little trouble sustaining their focus for the full hour.