(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 10/19. Photo: Kelvin Roston, Jr. and Amanda Drinkall in “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” at Court Theatre in Hyde Park. (Michael Brosilow photo / HANDOUT)
When theater historians seek to know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts in Chicago, the wisest heads will pay some attention to Court Theatre’s 100-minute cutting of “The Tragedy of Othello.”
It won’t be because this production of the Shakespearean tragedy celebrates the pleasure of being back together, as we’ve all heard in curtain speeches in recent weeks elsewhere. There is nothing whatsoever joyous about this chilly, fractured take on “Othello,” a conception that has a dystopian sensibility running through its core.
The show was conceived when it seemed likely that capacity in theaters would remain limited, so just 81 seats are being sold for each performance. Much of the auditorium at the University of Chicago is unused and is covered in a cloth, even as people are seated, masked but without being socially distanced, in a section of the theater.
If this was not a conscious commentary on the shared experience of the last 18 months, then it sure was permeating the subconsciousness of the co-directors, Charles Newell and Gabrielle Randle-Bent.
Some of the audience is seated on the stage in swivel chairs, isolated even from their most immediate companions, rocking and swaying like nervous competitors in a quiz show. Much the same could be said for the conceptions of the characters in what is typically William Shakespeare’s most intimate tragedy.
Most of the time here, they appear to be consumed by their inner thoughts and trapped by barriers of their own construction on John Culbert’s set, a design that wants to embrace not being a design at all. They watch each other as if at a sad and sculptured remove; the stylized movement makes it appear as if they are no longer alive, at least in the usual humanistic sense. The sensuality — this typically is Shakespeare’s most sensual play — is mechanical and cold.