Jealousy breeds evil things. Montford Park Players and Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective unite for one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Othello, currently showing at The BeBe Theatre through Sunday, Nov. 19.
When general Othello (played by Steph Hickling Beckman) chooses Cassio (Jon Stockdale) over Iago (Ian Patrick Mendes) as his lieutenant, trouble is bound to happen. Against her father’s wishes, Desdemona (Trinity Smith Keel) marries Othello. This presents the perfect revenge for Iago, who maliciously accuses Desdemona of adultery with Cassio, and everything spirals out of control.
At one time, the play’s subject of interracial marriage (Othello was originally written as a black man) was extremely controversial. In this version, Othello is played by a woman. Since gender identity is such an important topic in today’s society, this is clever and adds a fresh twist. However, a sense of discrimination from some of the characters in the story would’ve been a bolder choice, adding new depth to the ending. The direction almost echoes the androgyny of Joan of Arc, but the powerful statement lacks total commitment, and the taboo loses some impact.
Nevertheless, Hickling Beckman is unmistakably brilliant. From beginning to end, there’s never a falsehood. Hickling Beckman lives and breathes the lovelorn character with prominence and danger. Her electric eyes lock us into the pressure of the play, highlighting why some believe Desdemona is being held by witchcraft.
Smith Keel makes Desdemona gentle and somewhat timid, which is an interesting choice. It works because she has the opportunity for growth alongside the mighty Othello. We could do with more body contact and sensuality between them, though. Smith Keel throws down hard in her final scene as she claws her way to the audience to escape Hickling Beckman’s fierce grasp. The tension swells with the startling sound design by director Scott Keel, and the denouement does not disappoint.
Mendes is beyond striking as the manipulative villain. He’s certainly one of this production’s greatest assets, and a contender for best local performance of the year. With such a debonair approach, we understand why everyone so easily buys into Iago. Mendes’ cunning performance is so professionally rendered that he causes an avalanche of emotions.
Right alongside him is Devyn Ray, as Iago’s wife, Emilia. She’s outstanding. We’re not sure where our trust lies with her, given her villainous relations and edgy, fire-red hair. When she so callously passes Desdemona’s handkerchief to Iago, this sets the rumor mill in motion. There’s a particularly beautiful moment in the bedroom where Ray delivers a speech regarding women’s oppression with such conviction it draws tears.
This production is filled with extraordinary performances brought forth by Keel. Stockdale continues his streak of terrific roles, Phillipe Andre Coquet grabs attention as Brabantio and Sonia D’Andrea, playing Bianca, is one to watch. Other players include John Preston Mendenhall, Daniel Henry and Jason Williams as Roderigo.
In a laudable move of confidence, the BeBe Theatre is stripped of nothing but a large mural map across the floor. The minimalism showcases the eloquence of the Shakespearean language.
MPP and Different Strokes! are both excellent local theater companies. Their partnership proves to be a triumphant venture. Tickets for the free but reservation-required show are sold out at press time, but a waitlist starts at the door, 30 minutes before each show.
WHERE: BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St., montfordparkplayers.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 19. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Waitlist only, sign up at the door, 30 minutes before each show.