This past weekend I had a chance to see Shakespeare’s Othello in somewhat the way that it would have originally been performed in 1604, but opposite. Rather than the cast being all male, as in 1604, it was all female in 2019. The Babes With Blades Theatre Company is currently performing Othello at the Factory Theater at 1623 W. Howard Street in Chicago.
While studying Shakespeare in school, I recall being taught that when Shakespeare’s productions were originally performed, the cast was all male. I recall thinking how odd it must have been to see men portraying the parts of women, and all of them having to interact on stage.
This performance of Othello gave me a chance to witness a single sex casting of a Shakespeare production and realize that with the right cast, it works, and works well. Perhaps the basis for a literary Doctoral thesis, in a far larger venue then a single newspaper review article may be, as to whether Shakespeare actually created gender neutral works. Credit should be given to the director Mignon McPherson Stewart for bringing all of the pieces together, and Hayley Rice, dramaturg/script adapter for making the characters believable.
As for the performers, they played their parts so well that not only were they believable in their roles, but they also caused this reviewer, to at points in the production, transcend seeing them as an all female cast.
Certain actors stood out in their performances. Brianna Buckley as the Moor Othello was warrior, lover, and confused tormented human. Sarah Liz Bell as Desdemona and Ashley Fox as Amelia played the parts of people caught in a struggle and played against their true selves to the extent of hysteria, to the point of invoking actual tears. Kathrynne Wolf delivers the lines of Iago in a convincing, conniving, manipulative, power seeking, anti-hero way. Additionally she was able to speak classic Shakespeare attributed and coined phrases of the play Othello, including that of “Who steals my purse…” along with others of a more innuendo nature.
As promised in the Theater Company’s name, there are blades and sword play in the production. Not only are the various types of blades functional parts of the costumes, but there are also scenes with sword play throughout. With this reviewer’s own experience with such amounting to only a small amount of time with a fencing foil, I was most truly impressed with the handling of the weapons in the fight scenes.
The set was most unique in its versatility, yet simplicity. With 4 posts, 4 curtains, 4 stage accesses, 2 audience involved columns, and a few simple pieces of furniture, the audience is able to believe that they are outside a Villa, at a sea port, weathering a storm, in a bedchamber, in the midst of troops banter and chatter, and much more. For this, credit should be given to Erin Gautille, the scenic designer/technical director.
There are many reasons that a reviewer chooses a production to attend and write a review. In this case, my reason was twofold. The first was to see a unique version of a Shakespeare with a single sex casting. In that vein I was impressed. The second reason was the location of the production, namely Rogers Park. The region within the City of Chicago holds a special place in this reviewer’s memory as it was where I attended Loyola University. After requesting and receiving the production, I contacted my past college roommate, who still resides in Rogers Park, and we met to have dinner and take in the show. In a small way I was able to temporarily step back to part of the past in my own life, and relive being a college student in a trendy unique part of the City and enjoy the theater.
The Factory Theater is in the shadow of a historic venue. It has a stage and 70 seat theater within space created around the remnants of the Howard Theatre on Howard Street in Chicago.
The neo-classical preserved facade of the early 20th century building, once part of the Balaban & Katz chain of theaters, still stands as an architectural edifice, harkening back to a forgotten time.
I think that it was during the intermission that I remembered something that my Father had said to me while home from college for short break all those decades ago. I told of stories of visiting art openings, theatrical productions, and art museums. I explained that these were events that my college roommate had introduced and taken me to. Over the course of my college career, my Father realized that it was these activities and the positive influence of my college roommate that had hued some of my rough edges off of me, and given me an appreciation for the arts. From my now dearly departed Father and myself, thank you Rick.
Take a little bit of time, travel to Chicago, leave your comfort zone, and experience Othello with a unique twist.
• Ernest J. Varga was born in Chicago, raised in the suburbs, and decided to live in Richmond following college. His family has had roots in McHenry County since the mid 1950s. He met his wife at the Woodstock Opera House and they just celebrated their 25th anniversary. They had and raised two wonderful boys. They all have a love of live performance productions, and his reviews are written from that perspective.