Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2002

A female Othello. A Jewish Christmas story. The Women’s Repertory Theatre loves paradox and provocation. Founded late in 2001, the fledgling company is dedicated to providing stage roles for women, developing new works that feature female protagonists and exploring the classics from a non-gender bias.

Their first offerings are true to their mission. Last winter, they produced “Carol,” a new play written by WRT co-founders Gayle Feldman and Todd Blakesley, a decidedly feminist take on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In December, they’ll present the sequel, “Carol: A Jewish Christmas Story.” And this month, they’re mounting an all-female “Othello.”

“All of the most brilliant roles in the canon are for males,” says Feldman, former artistic director of Diversionary Theatre. “We want to give women a chance to play these roles. ‘Othello’ is perfect. It’s a great Shakespeare play, it requires a smaller cast, it deals with issues of racism as well as relationship. ”

So what brings a man into the mix? Blakesley is firm in asserting, “If guys don’t stick together with the women, it’s a cold, dark night. Everyone interested in equality pushes a little bit. I push in theater.”

While Blakesley serves as producer of “Othello,” Feldman is taking on the role of the villain, Iago.

“He’s a very complex character,” she says. “I couldn’t play him as pure evil. I don’t see him as evil, though he ends up doing something evil. He’s a military man, trying to climb the ladder. He serves the general faithfully and he expects a promotion. He gets rejected for a pretty-boy without experience on the field. Actors understand this. We really don’t have a ladder to climb, and this leads to a great deal of frustration. Iago acts out his vengeance in a kind of war-game. Beneath it all, coming from a psychological position, though Shakespeare didn’t necessarily care about that, he probably has a devastating history. He’s probably something of a psychopath, disconnected from his compassion.”

“Kind of like a disgruntled postal worker,” Blakesley chimes in.

“Othello kills Desdemona,” Feldman continues. “But he’s still a heroic character. Everyone forgives him, and he’s redeemed, because being cuckolded is the worst thing imaginable. But here’s an issue for me: If Desdemona had been guilty, would it have been justifiable to kill her?

“Since reading the text and working on Iago, I’ve moved into the more feminine part of myself. I’ve become more loving and caring and compassionate. That’s reason enough for women to experience some of these really dark roles. When you touch the dark in yourself, you touch the light. When you shine a light in one place, you start to see everything, all of you.”

Feldman and Blakesley have gathered together some high-octane participants in this production. Well-respected local actor Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson plays Othello, and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, artistic associate at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, directs. She chose to set the piece in the 1950s.

“I wanted to find a time when the division between genders and races was very clear, very distinct. It was a time when men were men and women were dames, and blacks and whites were completely separate.

“Shakespeare’s play is set in Venice and Cypress. In my mind, Venice is like Washington, D.C., the seat of government and order. Cypress is the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love. Compared to Venice, it was a wild, primitive place. Such a masculine play set on this very feminine island. I think it all fits fine. I’m not trying to add a lot of stuff. I’m just giving the audience and actors a kind of context. Even though the women are dressed as men, the main focus is in telling the story as Shakespeare wrote it, in a way that’s both provocative and true to the text. Having women up there adds something a little extra.

“The sexual issue becomes important. We think we’re watching something that’s taboo, forbidden. Black and white, woman and woman. And our Othello is much older than our Desdemona (L.A. actor JoAnn Glover). We can’t help but think about the women here. We won’t be able to forget. In that sense, this production is kind of Brechtian. The players become the characters. The actors all happen to be female, and they’re going to play men. My hope is that we’re telling the story so well it doesn’t matter. I come from an African American matriarchy. Women already know what women are capable of. It’s important for us to do this production for the men.”

After WRT’s premiere, which earned very favorable reviews, Feldman reported that “audiences loved it. They said it was a real, intimate theater experience. They laughed, they cried, they were stunned. We want to entertain and to shake them up, about women’s issues, about racism in this play and anti-Semitism in the next. We’re always shooting for that laugh-cry experience.”

[Othello runs from June 13-July 20 in the new Actor’s Asylum space in La Mesa; 619-282-3277 •]

©2002 Patté Productions Inc.