Interlochen’s Othello creates a cultural moment
iNTERLOCHEN, MI–The character Othello has been described as the most romantic ofShakespeare’s heroes, as the greatest poet of them all, and as egotistical. He’s all that and more, and that’s only part of the reason the tragedy ha sbeen adapted nearly as many different ways as there have been years since the Bard penned it in the 17th Century.
And yet Interlochen Shakespeare Festival Director William Church has proven there’s yet another interpretation of the beloved tale that’s not only terrifically relevant today, but well worth seeing for its sheer artistic excellence.
To be fair, Shakespeare at Interlochen is dependably good. And it is always a treat to experience performances in the outdoor Upton-Morley Pavilion, watching the lighting design (by Rachel Diebel this year) work with the setting sun and seeing how the actors make use of the aisles and pathways among the trees as well as the multi-tiered set (designed by Edward Morris) like stacked shipping containers that reveal a bar and a bedroom inside as well as balconies and many hiding places from which to eavesdrop and create drama.
But this year Othello is particularly adept and clear sighted. As the first Shakespeare at Interlochen since 2019, it’s been deliberately chosen in response to the cultural moment as it has evolved over these highly-charged three years. As William Church offered in his Director’s Notes, classic literature can help us contextualize crisis, and Othello challenges all of us to reflect on principles of fundamental human decency. “Why do we destroy what we see as different from ourselves?”
As the only Shakespeare play with a central character who is black, or“moorish,”,its themes of racial bigotry, jealousy, and passion make it particularly fitting for this moment in which the fight for racial justice continues. And the Interlochen production makes use of contemporary costumes (designed by Risa Alecci), setting the play in a modern military outpost to make its emotional scenes feel all the more immediate.
The story is unchanged: the General Othello has married Desdemona againstthe wishes of her racist father. Othello’s duplicitous ensign, Iago, angryfor being passed over for promotion and in cahoots with a once-suitor ofDesdemona’s, falsely convinces Othello of his wife’s betrayal, sending himinto fits of rage that lead Othello to murder his beloved before learningof his error and killing himself.
But what makes this production most emotionally resonant are the powerful performances. Sydney James Harcourt, known for his work on Broadway’s Hamilton as well as numerous television and film credits–and also an Interlochen graduate–is a remarkable Othello. Calm, steady, collected, he’s clearly a romantic lead yet comes across as a commanding military general who doesn’t lose his cool—until he does on the rare occasion for which it is merited. That romantic gravitas builds as he is increasingly convinced of his confidante’s lies.
Andrew McGinn is a wonderfully wretched, conniving Iago, embodying this evil antagonist with every spiteful utterance and every movement. Here, dissolute Roderigo, in cahoots with Iago, is portrayed as a member of the media, a sight gag in his white fedora, khakis, and flak jacket. Shelby Lewis is an amorous Desdemona; Peter Carroll a charming Cassio; and Laura Ames Mittelstaedt an especially potent Emilia.
Every actor on stage gives a top-notch performance, so honestly connecting and responding to one another and the rapid fire conflicts both large and small at hand, their emotions are palpable.
Perhaps also because, 400 years later, those feelings, rooted in prejudice and injustice remain part of our daily experience, some more directly than others. But in watching the tragic effects of unchecked hatred and internalized racism play out on stage, perhaps there is possibility of empathy, understanding, and ultimately continuing change toward justice for all.
We can hope. This is the potential, the power of well-chosen and beautifully-executed classic theater.