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Othello comes to life from the London stage

Victoria Velasquez | Tuesday, September 17, 2013

“My bloody thoughts with violent pace shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love till that a capable and wide revenge swallow them up,” actor Jude Akuwudike growled, emphasizing with power each vengeance-soaked word given to him by William Shakespeare in “Othello.” 

If you have ever seen Shakespeare performed on a live stage, you know that its language becomes infinitely more powerful than when read from dried ink on the pages of a book (or, in this case, a newspaper). Even more experienced theater-goers can look forward to an inventive and poignant approach to the world’s most well-known playwright showing at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center tonight, tomorrow and Friday.

Notre Dame functions as the American base and first destination for the program Actors From the London Stage (AFTLS), which sends a cast of five professional actors to perform and teach at colleges across the country. This week, actors Jude Akuwudike, Richard Neale, Jan Shepher, Jack Whitam and Alinka Wright will teach Shakespeare to classes ranging from psychology to public speaking and from literature to law. 

This touring season delivers to Notre Dame “Othello,” a tragedy which provides a riveting tale of deceit, love, trust and jealousy. “Othello” already stands prominently in Shakespeare’s works as the source of his perhaps most cunning villain, Iago, and most vulnerable hero, Othello. Yet there is something about AFTLS which suggests that this particular performance will stand out on stage.

Jack Whitam, who portrays Michael Cassio, said working with a cast of five with minimal props and set pieces engaged the actors’ treatment of the text.

 “What it does is it forces you to be creative in a way that you wouldn’t be if you had a full-sized cast and a big set,” he said. “What it does is that it makes it so that you have to tell the story that much clearer with the language itself, which is actually what would have happened in Shakespeare’s time anyway. The language itself tells the story, and that’s what we have.”

This dynamic quint promises to keep audience members on their toes by swapping characters in seconds with shifts in physicality and in costume. 

“For example, there’s a bit where Desdemona is standing on stage, but she also plays Montano, who’s been hurt. He’s sitting there with a stab wound in his stomach, and she happens to walk into the scene while Montano is there,” Whitam said, allowing the secret to this theatrical feat to remain a mystery.

Actors From the London Stage brings another unconventional aspect of theater production to “Othello.” The cast is entirely self-directed, which challenged the actors and enhanced the dynamic of the show. 

“In the process of rehearsing, we were each sort of all taking the role of leadership, and it seemed to work very harmonically in our company,” said Akuwudike, who plays the title character in “Othello.” 

Whitam said each actor had to approach his or her character differently. 

“For the first time ever, I’ve looked at the whole, broad perspective of the show, the whole beast of it, rather than just my character and the scenes I’m in,” he said.

The compelling cast ensures a captivating show. Yet, as a tragedy, “Othello” is no bedtime story. Manipulation and jealousy drive Othello to violence, which results (spoiler alert!) in Desdemona’s violent death. 

“When Desdemona is killed, we wanted it to be real, … wanted people to be uncomfortable,” Whitam said. “It’s not a genteel world we live in.” 

Akuwudike said he believes the Shakespearean use of language in “Othello” holds great power.

“It’s got the rumble of a Beethoven symphony,” he said.

So, prepare to be shocked. If you are susceptible to producing “water works” under circumstances of intense emotion, bring your handkerchief. But please, for the love of Queen Elizabeth, don’t lose it in the theater.

“Othello” is showing this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Debartolo Performing Arts Cente at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 for students and $20 general admission.