Rug Store Provides Unsettlingly Peaceful Setting for Violent 'Othello'

The ever resourceful and itinerant Ubuntu Theater Project’s first move in staging Othello, one of Shakespeare’s most horrific tragedies, is to encase it in beauty. At Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company, a Berkeley store selling Persian carpets and the like, the company has found not only a beautiful venue, but also one that possesses an epic sense of tranquility.

There are rugs everywhere, hanging from the walls like ancient tapestries, in huge piles behind the audience -- as if the world we’ve entered were smothered in an abundance of treasure -- and on the floor of the stage, where the actors glide over a complex mosaic of woven, abstract patterns.

The production is especially sharp in the first act, where Othello triumphs in spite of his race, navigating the complex political and social realities of a white, European Venice. Ronald Kirk’s Othello catches the swift intelligence and physical grace of a warrior who knows his way around power and how to bend it to his will.

The Duke of Venice summons Othello, his best general, for an important mission against the Turks and he’s ready. Immediately thereafter, surrounded by his father-in-law’s men and accused of defiling Desdemona -- who he has secretly married -- he commands the situation even in captivity. This Othello is like some cunning god descended from the heavens: every situation is a testament to his brilliance and excellence.

Michael Socrates Moran’s direction is cinematic-fast. Soldiers slip along the periphery, Othello and Desdemona kiss in the background, Iago and Roderigo hide in the shadows and then erupt to the center of the stage. We’re in the street, now in the Senate, the piles of rugs behind the audience, a labyrinthine Venice of alleyways and canals. In the heady rush of Othello’s political and romantic victories, we almost forget how sickening this is all going to get.

And then the tragedy begins. Kirk, in a truly complex performance, seems to age 10 years between the first and second acts. The outsider cool of the Venetian scenes gives way to a clumsy vanity, a buffoon’s attempt at a pretended gravitas. Watch how this Othello is always vainly rearranging his scarf.

Kirk’s Othello and Michael Navarra’s Iago are excellent together and catch what’s most essential about the play: that these men are contrary aspects of the same soul. In the last image before the intermission, they stare at each other and embrace in a strange caress. It’s unclear whether they’re ready to fight, kiss, or console one another.

No matter how successful, neither of them seems capable of resting in the world. They can navigate it as Othello does in the first act and manipulate it as Iago does in the rest of the play. But there is no calm, only a roiling absence where a person should be. Both of these characters operate best as outsiders. And so Othello’s triumph becomes Iago’s opportunity. The mantle of cool slips from good to evil and we’re caught admiring a devil.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s wiliest ethical traps and finds perfect expression in Ubuntu’s social and aesthetic concerns. One of the pleasures of this young company is how seriously its members take the importance of the ensemble. They always get fine lead performances, but they are of a piece with the whole cast. Even the walk-ons perform with a ferocity equal to the stars and that gives Ubuntu productions, this Othello included, a sense of completeness.

So when Othello and Iago grasp each other in the middle of the stage, we feel the pressure of the entire cast weighing down on them and feel the complexities of the play all the more acutely. Shakespeare’s shifty moral calculus and Ubuntu’s commitment to the group demand clarity. Conflict is never random, but rather the result of entire worlds and cultures.

As with the company's recent stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Ubuntu’s theatrical invention flags at times. And the production is somewhat marred by a weak Desdemona. Emilie Whelan is capable, but seems to be acting an interpretation rather than a person. Where the other leads stay in the moment, the actress seems too aware of Desdemona’s fate. As early as the first act, Whelan behaves as if she's caught in a nightmare rather than embarking on the adventure of her life. It's Desdemona's belief in Othello's goodness, not her dread of him, that sustains the character for most of the play.

Yet the production is consistently forceful. When we reach Othello’s murder of Desdemona and the long, strange scene that follows it, Moran and company come close to pulling off one of theater’s most brutally difficult scenes. As Othello slinks towards Desdemona's bed to kill her, you realize that for at least an hour the ensemble has been working on Desdemona's handkerchief, the false evidence that convinces Othello to murder his beloved wife.

What was once a slight piece of cloth is now around 30 feet long. The cast stretches it across the stage -- about six feet above the bed -- reframing the cavernous space into a harsh and unforgiving rectangle. Even though there is a vast and enticing world around the massive piece of fabric -- the beauty and tranquility of all those hanging rugs -- you know there is no way out of that room.

This bit of theatrical magic allows Kirk’s Othello, Navarra’s Iago, and Sarita Ocon’s churning Emilia to take on the sharp shifts in focus that end this unnerving, ugly tragedy. As they snarl and lash out like wild animals in a cage, you think, yes, this is close to what must happen. I wouldn’t say that this Othello is entirely successful, but it’s a thrilling, daring attempt nonetheless.

‘Othello’ runs through June 26 at Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company, Berkeley. For tickets and information please click here.