The Devil Made Him Do It

The Othello Project, on-stage at the Florida Shakespeare Theatre in Coral Gables, takes its Deep South setting and part of its title from the Mississippi Project, in which more than 800 college students went down to promote black voter registration in the summer of 1964. Less than two weeks into the project, one student and two civil rights workers were found shot and beaten to death in Mississippi. The murders prompted civil rights legislation and later served as the basis for the 1984 film Mississippi Burning.

The rest of the title, of course, comes from Othello, the Moor of Venice, William Shakespeare's tale of an interracial marriage destroyed by jealousy and deceit. In this update of the nearly 400-year-old drama, director Rod Carley replaces Elizabethan tights with pillbox hats. But the setting and costumes are not what imbue the play with a modern perspective. Altering the Bard's intent, Carley frees the main characters from personal responsibility by blaming their actions on everything from government conspiracies to voodoo.

Presented in a fluid, cinematic style, The Othello Project increases the number of scenes but still manages to bring the two-and-a-half-hour production in at two acts with one intermission. Before the action of Shakespeare's play begins, Carley's added prologue introduces new characters: two male Mississippi Project students -- one black, the other white -- who have been bound and gagged. Nearby is Shakespeare's clown (Steven Henry), once a servant to Othello and now a voodoo practitioner, who hides beneath the Spanish moss that frames the stage and cascades into the weed-filled water at the apron's edge.

Carley's additions don't stop there. Rather than enter alone, Iago (Jeff Miller) bursts onto the stage with Roderigo (Peter Paul De Leo), a car mechanic, and their fellow Ku Klux Klansmen to check on their captives. Iago, it seems, is no longer the lone schemer Shakespeare intended him to be. Here he's a double-agent of sorts: the leader of a motley band of racists and an assistant to Othello, who happens to be an FBI agent. In one of the few changes to the dialogue, Iago fumes that his valor in Dallas and Saigon has been overlooked by Othello, who promoted Cassio to second-in-command instead of him.

To get even he urges Roderigo to call up good ol' boy Senator Brabantio (Dan Brady) and break the news that Othello has just eloped with his lily-white daughter Desdemona. After word gets out, an angry mob, led by the senator, goes hunting for the newlyweds. Iago follows to see what will happen, leaving Roderigo behind to kill the students and dispose of the bodies. When Othello (Anthony Hubert) is finally brought before the court, he wins the senator's favor by explaining how he and Desdemona (Margery Lowe) fell in love during his frequent visits to the senator's house.

If this sounds like a stretch, it is. As originally written, Othello, a Moor, is accepted by the Venetian government because of his worth as a military leader who protected and helped expand the government's holdings. With this update, Othello is welcomed by a government that needs a token black FBI agent to handle the public relations crisis caused by the students' murders.

Before the investigation begins, the senator suggests to Othello that, because Desdemona willfully defied society and fooled her own father, she may one day deceive her husband. Iago nourishes that seed of doubt after joining Othello and Cassio in the nearby town where the students' bodies have been discovered.

Also on hand are Desdemona, Iago's wife Emilia (Pamela Roza), and Bianca (Zuleyma H. Guevara), Cassio's black lover. Lurking in the background is Roderigo, Desdemona's ex-boyfriend, who is willing to pay Iago to break up Othello's marriage. Anxious to see Cassio fired, Iago plots to convince Othello that his fellow agent is having an affair with Desdemona.

These plot points, as well as Desdemona's murder and Othello's subsequent suicide, concur with Shakespeare's original script. Along the way, though, Carley redefines Iago's scheme by calling into question his actions against Cassio. First, it's suggested that some of Cassio's problems may be due to a voodoo doll created by Bianca's jilted lover. Later, as Bianca lies in bed with Cassio, she reads a letter revealing his part in a government conspiracy to depose Othello. The conspiracy, we learn, has ties to Iago's Klan activities. A twist like this might work on The X-Files, but Cassio's duplicity undercuts Shakespeare's primary reason for Iago's treachery and the depth of his machinations.

Cassio isn't the only character eviscerated by Carley's version of the script. Because the torch-wielding Roderigo is performed by De Leo as a savage redneck bumpkin, he no longer has to be corrupted and tricked into murder by Iago's treachery. And Iago, rivaled only by Richard III as the number one Shakespearean villain, has been reduced to a misfit more suited to blowing up government buildings than to subtly driving someone mad. Once an outsider who personified the evils of ambition and revenge, he's now part of a Klan brotherhood seeking a new world order. Spewing histrionic racial venom, Miller captures Iago's fetid soul but never his cold brilliance.

As Desdemona, Lowe comes closest to a traditional interpretation by depicting Othello's slandered wife as a malleable woman who naively sees the best in everyone. Unfortunately, Lowe's performance lacks any lingering traces of the headstrong girl who, before we are introduced to her, risked everything to marry an outsider.

Given the play's title, however, the portrayal of Othello is the key to success. Relinquishing his sword to become a company man who fights the system instead of foes, Othello is stripped of his one-time majesty and succumbs to common jealousy; he doesn't fall from a noble height. Forced to wear this stylistic straitjacket, Hubert nevertheless strikes a tragic chord, as when he listens to a wiretap he assumes confirms his wife's infidelity.

That brief glimpse of human weakness makes this staging all the more frustrating. Without Scottish witches or the ghost of a dead Danish king to influence events, Shakespeare's Othello plays as a tragedy caused by the character flaws of its protagonists. The Othello Project, on the other hand, offers up as mitigating factors voodoo curses and a community more polarized than Romeo and Juliet's Verona. Most tellingly, Othello's penultimate speech, in which he famously says he "lov'd not wisely, but too well," is spoken by another character. So, instead of having confessed his guilt and taken the blame, Othello lies dead at the feet of a would-be Johnnie Cochran who blames the man's actions on society.

Playing the race card with Shakespeare is nothing new. This past fall Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) played Othello as the only white man in an otherwise all-black city for a production in Washington, D.C. And Carley, the award-winning artistic director of Toronto's Walking Shadow Theatre, has tinkered with Shakespeare in the past; he set Troilus and Cressida in Vietnam and As You Like It in Third Reich Germany.

What's perhaps ironic is that Carley's racially dominated version harks back to the Bard's original source material, Cinthio's Hecatommithi. In that version Desdemona delivers the story's moral when she admits, shortly before her murder, that perhaps she shouldn't have married a man of a different race.

While Shakespeare's text doesn't jibe with Carley's viewpoint, the work of his first-rate design team does. Saidah Ben Judah's costumes scream race: Emilia wears a black dress, Desdemona virginal white frocks, the FBI agents black suits and white shirts. The exception is Othello, who is dressed in gray.

Richard Bodington and Juan F. Cejas enhance Carley's fluid stage direction with an easy-to-switch set that features, among other things, a table that turns into a dock. And Bodington's atmospheric lighting evokes the mystique of a bayou, while Carley's sound design, featuring snatches of "Blue Bayou" and Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," comments on the action.

Unusual in local productions is Florida Shakespeare Theatre's eighteen-member cast, in which only one actor plays two characters. While the majority of the supporting cast recited Shakespeare's blank verse as though it were a foreign language, Stephen G. Anthony spoke his lines as Lodovico with understanding and conviction.

But you need more than a large cast or even classically trained actors to make Othello stir your blood. It takes a heart-rending depiction of the tragedy that awaits anyone whose emotions or baser instincts go unchecked. Anything less isn't the Moor.

The Othello Project.
Written by William Shakespeare; adapted and directed by Rod Carley; with Anthony Hubert, Jeff Miller, Margery Lowe, A.J. Pittis, and Peter Paul De Leo. Through February 21. Florida Shakespeare Theatre, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables, 445-1119.

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