Oh Bloody Period: Invictus Theatre’s Othello Lacks a Foundation in Language

Karissa Murrell Myers as Iago, Reginald Vaughn as Othello. Photo by Brian McConkey Photography

In their inaugural production of Othello, Invictus Theatre invites us to consider the themes of racism and sexism, both external and internalized, which they hasten to remind us are still relevant today. These elements seem slightly whitewashed, however, in a production that lacks a foundation for Shakespearean acting, creating disappointingly superficial performances.

[tl;dr: Invictus’ Othello is remarkably and sweepingly lacking in its understanding of language in general and verse performance in particular. Except for Callie Johnson’s Desdemona, no one seems to know what they are saying or why they are saying it, resulting in flat and insincere performances throughout. Fault must be placed with director Charles Askenaizer, who is the artistic director of Invictus, ostensibly founded to promote an understanding of language. Occasional forays into modern military culture do little to justify the design veneer and in no way compensate for the show’s fundamental lack of grounding in motivation, relationships, or the words. You can read my other reviews here.]

The production opens with a rapid-fire exchange between Iago and Rodrigo (Karissa Murrell Myers and Robert Vignisson, respectively), wherein gallons of nuance are glossed over in the evident desire to get the scene over with as quickly as possible. The show runs two hours and forty minutes, so the desire for rapidity is understandable. However I for one would prefer excessive cutting to delivering lines so quickly and shallowly as to render them meaningless. I found this especially disappointing given Invictus’ mission statement: to promote a better understanding of language.

Many theater companies debut with Shakespeare plays. They are free, they have built-in audiences, and they invite presumptions of artistic integrity. It is not uncommon, then, for these new companies to undertake verse plays without sufficient understanding of complex sentence structure, motivated meter, or even antitheses (one of the most frequently used and more rudimentary Shakespeare devices). Yet for a theater company that claims to specialize in these things, the almost universal lack of command over language seems an unbearable fault, and this fault finds its apex in the play’s leads.

Othello himself is often dismissed as less complex than Iago (though the opposite may be closer to the truth), and he therefore (I think) requires an actor of surpassing drive, nuance, commitment, and knowledge of the script to create a realistic and relatable Othello, or at least an Othello that you want to watch. Reginald Vaughn does not appear to bring these qualities to the role. Like most of the cast, he seems to recite lines while trying to forcibly emote over or under them. Vast swaths of nuance are missed, not for the sake of speed, but simply because they go unnoticed. Vaughn specifically demonstrates a common failing in inexperienced performers: he cannot pick up cues. Unable or unwilling to engage with what is being spoken to him, he does not “switch on” until his final cue word is spoken. He then takes a breath and starts reciting lines. Vaughn displays breath issues throughout, taking large shoulder breaths, not at the end of each line as some Shakespeareans like to do, but intermittently and without purpose, serving to highlight the impression of unmotivated recitation. It is worth repeating, I think, that all of the above issues relate directly to spoken language, allegedly the point-of-focus for this theater company.

Murrell Myers’ Iago is a bit more attentive to cues, but offers little for her scene partners. Although she slows down after Act 1, Murrell Myers continues to play states of being rather than use the words. This was a common element in the cast, but while most of the actors chose to alternate volume in order to stress phrases (with very little alteration in pitch or duration, the other two key elements of vocal variety), Murrell Myers relies almost exclusively on tactics of deflection: verbally shrugging, sneering, and downplaying. This interpretation, an Iago who is constantly shrugging off involvement or interest with everyone and does little else, might carry some weight if the rest of the cast were passionately pressing her, but without such commitment or motivation, I just see a Brechtian gest that lacks purpose. Occasional forays into “I am evil” during the soliloquies, perhaps meant as representations of anger or resentment, offer little respite from an Iago that lacks both the emotional sincerity of contemporary acting and the linguistic power of classical performance.

Callie Johnson’s Desdemona deserves praise as the only performance in the show featuring motivation, comprehension, clarity, and commitment. While I normally rush to judge equity actors with a harsher lens, Johnson’s varied vocal qualities, verbally informed physicality, articulation, and text-based emoting provided welcome highlights to the show. On the flip-side: Johnson’s Desdemona was unusually strong-willed, undermining her frequently submissive lines as sarcastic or combative, which I’m not entirely convinced is an improvement on the role. Still, it’s a new take, and a meek and Stepfordized Desdemona is a common interpretation that can always be seen elsewhere.

A brief mention of the set and costumes may be useful here. Invictus’ Othello is set in the ‘modern military’ motif so often seen in budget Shakespeares: most characters wear fatigues, and military storage cases are used to make up most of the set (Gary Nocco and Caleb Awe on costume design, Kevin Rolfs on set design). As a concept it’s a bit uninspired, but it is well executed and (for the most part) does not impede the story. In this sense, it is a fine choice for a company that wishes to focus on language and does not have the resources for lavish “period-appropriate” costuming. The military veneer does come into play on occasion though, and when it does, it serves only to impede. Most notably, occasional military-bro mannerisms (ie: bellowing) muddy already flat and un-articulated line deliveries in order to promote a well-worn Concept at the expense of the words.

This, ultimately, was what I took away from this production: a lack of concern for the words. It was almost universal among the cast, and responsibility must therefore be laid at the director’s feet.

It could well be that most of the cast members were simply incapable of utilizing verse; directors do not always have the options they wish they had when it comes to casting. But this play was directed by the artistic director of Invictus, Charles Askenaizer. This theater claims that its primary focus is to promote an understanding of language, and their artistic director was in charge of this show. Who else could we rely on to ensure that the performance was founded on the words? Who else could guarantee us that the actors would know what they were saying and why they were saying it?

Askenaizer is an experienced artist: his bio states that he has been acting and directing in Chicago for seven years. He managed to secure an equity actor for this show. Promotional photos were done by the famous Brian McConkey. There is a full and fleshed-out design team. Invictus has press packets for their bloggers, they are well promoted, and press night was a full house. They give every impression of being a company that is, not wealthy perhaps, but well resourced and experienced. How such an ostensibly organized company, so seemingly experienced, with such a clear mission, could fall so short in the fundamental tenets of Shakespeare, and of acting generally, is beyond my comprehension. I ended my evening confused, disappointed, and more than a little frustrated.

HOW TO FIX IT: I usually try not to sell myself as an expert on anything, but I do spend a lot of time with verse, and there are a lot of fundamental errors with this production that I think could be resolved with some foresight and focus.

ONE: What Are You Saying and Why Are You Saying It? Invictus’ Othello seems to lack even the basics of how to speak a complex sentence: identifying the most important parts of each speech, then sentence, then clause, then identifying the supporting words and clauses and sentences, and how they compliment or contrast the main point of the speech. As alluded to above, Antithesis is a great introduction to how one can use one’s voice to accent and compliment major points: ‘It wasn’t hot, it was cold,’ ‘He was smiling, but he was sad,’ ‘This is no merry chase; it is my doom.’ When actors are familiar with how they can play with inflection and phrasing in this simple way, they can expand upon this to accent the myriad complimentary points in any speech while speaking on numerous subjects at once (a Shakespearean device called ‘stacking,’ handling numerous trains of thought at once). This is most easily done, however, after they learn to identify the main point (or thesis) of a speech or sentence. Put simply, actors have to know what they are saying. This is easy to ignore in contemporary plays, movies, and TV. We are expected to imitate contemporary speech, where people often affect insouciance and use tonal states-of-being to indicate emotions over or under what they are actually saying. Likewise, we are living in an age of two-second cuts, where editors combine a mash-soup of sounds into something coherent, so there is little demand on the actor to actually use their words as tools to effect their tactics in order to achieve their motivations. This all translates into Hands-in-Pockets Shakespeare, a shallow recitation where the actor seems like they might know what they’re saying, but nothing is being communicated to either the audience or the rest of the cast. Verse is not normal speech. Even Shakespeare’s prose is not structured the same way people spoke in his time (check out Patrick Tucker’s Secrets of Acting Shakespeare for examples). These characters are choosing to use unusual words, in an unusual manner, which means emphasizing more words than we do in our day-to-day, low-stakes (for the most part) lives.

TWO: Minting (Coining) Words. Continuing from the above: my old acting teacher once said “There is a difference between ‘Maybe we should go,’ and ‘Perhaps we should depart.'” Although these two sentences have the same literal meaning, the sounds produced by the words, as well as connotations specific to each word/s, produces a different effect on the listener. There’s actually an outstanding example of the effect sound can have on a speech in Othello, though it was sadly cut from this particular performance:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something, nothing:
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.”

Iago starts this speech with a lot of M’s, N’s, and other warm, soft, comforting sounds. Shortly after, however, a huge amount of S’s start showing up. At the end, the warm M’s and N’s return. Try whispering this speech to yourself, and you will quite possibly feel the warm comfort give way to serpentine insinuation, then recloak itself behind the warmth of false comfort. Treasures like this are strewn all throughout Shakespeare’s scripts, ripe for the plucking.

Likewise, consider the word “filches.” Not “plunders,” not “stealeth,” not “purloins,” but “filches.” What effect does that word have, compared to the others? How does your mouth and face move in order to speak the word? Why would Iago choose the word “filches,” as opposed to any of these other options?

This leads me right into:

THREE: Vocal Variation. Volume, Pitch, and Duration are the three primary tools by which we can alter the sounds we make and draw emphasis to certain words. In America, we tend to focus almost exclusively on Volume, with any changes in Pitch or Duration that occur during a shouting-match being largely coincidental. One or two voice lessons with this in mind should be enough to give any actor a solid foundation on these three tools of vocal variety (singing lessons, elocution lessons, or even voice coaching from a Shakespeare expert; any could work). For those without the time or money for voice lessons, I strongly recommend that you deliberately over-enunciate words during rehearsal (Malkovich acting). Take your time, and explore how the sounds of each syllable differ. Push this as much as your director will allow you. This will likely help with diction as well, something largely ignored in America’s contemporary “realistic” theater.

FOUR: Motivation and Spatial Awareness. Characters want things from other characters, but the actors playing those characters also want things. I don’t think it is possible for the actor playing Romeo to successfully seduce Juliet, because Juliet does not actually exist. I suspect most successful balcony scenes stem from the actors genuinely trying to impress each other, to give each other fun sounds and sensations to play with, and to otherwise actively engage the focus of the scene partner. When an actor is too much in-their-head instead of focused on what other people are doing, one of the two most common causes is a lack of engagement with scene partners (The other is not knowing their lines sufficiently). Trying to get something from the other people onstage necessarily means engaging with them instead of trying to play a state of being, to emote. So once you know what you’re saying, use those words to get what you want from your scene partners: make them laugh, make them smile, or just give them a sufficiently compelling impulse to motivate their next line. If you have the time and money for improv classes, they can be a priceless tool for learning how to engage with scene partners and react to the real world, to ‘get out of your head.’

FIVE: Know Your Lines. There were very few line-flubs in Invictus’ Othello, but there was a lot of empty recitation. There are many causes for this failing, but chief among them is not knowing your lines well enough. As many people (including myself) have recently whined, there is a largely American misapprehension that learning your lines late (or not at all) will make your performance more spontaneous. Stumbling and sputtering is technically spontaneous, I guess, but motivated spontaneity comes from knowing your lines so well that you can rattle them off without thinking (much like how we talk in real life). Many bad performances, specifically ‘in your head’ performances, stem from reading an invisible teleprompter in your own mind because you don’t know your lines well enough.

Although we sometimes learn a new trick or gain a new insight that fundamentally alters our performances, acting is for the most part a skill like any other, which improves gradually over time. The precepts above are not unique to me, and I’m sure many are familiar with them at least conversationally, but they are vital elements that I find lacking in many productions, especially Shakespeare productions. Prioritizing any or all of these, I think, will radically improve any verse performance, and most other performances as well.

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