Othello w/ Prof. Vann [Profs on the Town]

20 Dec

The following post is written by UHPer Elyssa Kaplan.

One of every Honors class’s favorite things of the semester is that one-day when the whole class meets up to attend an event and then eat food. “Professors on the Town,” as this field- trip is called allows for a class to experience some aspect of DC life that applies to the subject matter of the class, bridging “real life” with classical texts. This semester, Professor Vann’s Art and World Cultures’ class, studying the political power of art and architecture in the three major Abrahamic religions, metro-ed over to Capitol South to enjoy the Folger Theater’s production of Othello. For some, it was their first experience viewing professional theater, for others it was not even their first time at the Folger, but everyone left incredibly impressed with the production.

One of the best aspects of Professors on the Town is the class discussion of the event. How did each student interpret what he/she experienced or saw? How does the subject matter of the event relate to the subject matter of the class? Othello left our class with much to discuss. However, it was the acting of Ian Merrill Peakes as Iago, the modern comparison with the crusades, and the use of Islamic imagery that commanded our discussion.

I first saw Ian Merrill Peakes as Henry the VIII in the Folger’s production of Shakespeare’s historical play, Henry the VIII with another Honor’s class. I was blown away with his portrayal of the tyrannical king even seeing him tear-up at one emotional scene. Peakes’s Iago only reinforced my opinion. Peakes placed his hands behind his back as he spoke, so that from the front, Iago looked controlled and sincere; however, from the back, the audience could see the constant jittery movements of his hands and how unstable Iago actually was. At the end of the play, when Iago’s evil scheme is revealed, it was all I could do to not yell out to stop, that he did not mean it, and that if he could only explain it would make sense. But, this is Iago, of course he is guilty and evil. Peakes’ performance had you routing for the villain while also despising him.

However, the relevancy to the class really came out in the director’s choice to take the story of Othello and make it more crusade-based in costuming and stage design. Robert Richmond, the director, brought it to our attention that this was a play that could connect to world events today by emphasizing the “crusading” aspect. For our class, this choice fit perfectly as we were studying the crusades at that exact moment. The crusades brought all three religions together, but not in a good way. It was a time of extreme brutality and vigorous death of the “other” in the name of god. Instead of watching just the black-skinned “otherness” of Othello, the director chose to place a potential Muslim in the setting of a crusader-lust Christian setting. Having to prove his “Christian-ness,” the crime against Desdemona takes a new twist; the possibilities of that meaning were not lost on our class’s discussion of the play.

The final interesting point for our class was the conspicuous use of Islamic imagery throughout the production. The woodwork panels dividing the stage held crescents embedded in their design, Othello’s tunics were stereotypical Middle Eastern robes, and most interestingly, the different choices of sword. The Christian character of Cassio held a long, conventional broad sword, forming the cross at the handle. This sword is left conveniently throughout the play indicating Christian overtones wherever it is. However, to kill himself, Othello pulls out a small, sly crescent blade that savagely plunges into his heart. Othello chooses not the typical knife blade, but a curved crescent with which to kill himself. It is a powerful image.

As always, our class’s trip to the Folger Theater proved a fun and different trip than many of us would make on Saturday afternoon. The theater itself is something that everyone living in DC should make sure to visit, just to have visited. However, the play, Othello, was not only an enjoyable trip for our class. It also helped us to understand the subject matter we had been studying all semester in a different light. Instead of just reading first-hand accounts of crusader history, we were able to watch a familiar story played out in a new context, a crusader context. The historical crusades may be over, but their application is still very relevant to the way we view the “others” around us and ourselves today.


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