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Take Five: Director Bruce Longworth on love gone wrong in easily digestible 'Othello'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2012 - If you’re intimidated by Shakespeare’s language, twisted plots and numerous characters, “Othello” offers the ideal opportunity to bond with the Bard.

Of course, this year’s Shakespeare Festival presentation in Forest Park still features the playwright’s trademark early modern English in its tale of ill-fated love. But its tighter focus on fewer players makes “Othello” a natural choice for the Shakespeare novice, according to director Bruce Longworth.

Longworth, head of the acting program at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, directed the festival’s “Hamlet” in 2010. He is happy to be back in the director’s chair when rehearsals begin Tues., April 24 at Union Avenue Christian Church. But there’s not much happiness in store for Othello, an army general, and his wife Desdemona.

Othello, a Moor, or person of African descent, has no shortage of “frenemies.” Wealthy Roderigo is upset with Othello because he also loves Desdemona, who secretly marries Othello. Othello’s ensign Iago is also angry with Othello because Othello promoted his lieutenant Cassio ahead of him. Oh, and Iago also believes Othello slept with his wife Emilia.

“Beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster,“ Iago warns Othello. But Othello’s trust in these men is his undoing and literally becomes the death of him — and Desdemona, whom he murders.

Longworth talked with the Beacon about “Othello,” which runs May 23-June 17, and its exploration of betrayal, jealousy and racism. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Beacon: Could you give an example of racism in “Othello?”

Longworth:  In terms of racial moments in the play, they are subtle yet clear, as those moments tend to be.

One of the things Iago uses as a wedge with Othello is the suggestion that at the end of the day Desdemona will want to be with someone like herself — meaning someone who is white and upper class — and Othello hears what is not completely spoken.

How is “Othello” similar to and different from other Shakespearean plays?

Longworth: All of Shakespeare’s plays are big plays with an epic scope. “Othello” is a tremendous story, a gripping story, but also an easy story to follow.

My intent is not to criticize other Shakespeare plays. But in some, like when there are five guys named Henry, it’s sometimes tougher to keep straight who’s on what side, why they’re fighting and in what war are they fighting. “Othello” is a domestic tragedy with an immediacy to it and an ease of following that makes it very enjoyable to watch.

You’ve set this production during the 30-day war between Italy and Turkey in 1912. Is that a first?

Longworth: I’m pretty sure that everything has been done before, but I can’t say categorically this has been.

I don’t think the play is political in nature like “Hamlet.” “Othello” is not about politics; it’s a very personal story. But it speaks to issues that are resonant today, and having a bit of historical distance like 100 years allows us to view these issues better: how far have we come, how far do we still need to go, where are we right now, and what can we do about that?

The war in the story is really the springboard for the action, but the war really never comes about. The Turkish fleet of the Ottoman empire is destroyed by a storm at sea. Everybody goes sailing out to Cypress to have a big old battle, but the weather takes care of that.

Even so, there is no happy ending.

Longworth: It’s not a happy story. It’s a cataclysmic story. So many people lose everything: Othello loses his honor, and I would argue that ultimately he loses his soul at the end of the play when he realizes what he has done.

What is redemptive about the “Othello” and its bleakness?

Longworth: It’s a love story that just goes very very wrong, and I think audiences tend to respond to those kind of stories. Obviously, they like to see comedies where love works out. But the flip side of that is this kind of tragic love story — and it certainly falls into that category.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.