Monday, June 1, 2015

ZJU's Othello (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Of all Shakespeare's major plays, Othello is my  probably my least favorite. Yet Josh T. Ryan remains a director I always enjoy, so when he told me that was his next play, I got excited.

He dropped a few other hints since. One, "Godzilla rises," makes perfect sense but I'm not going to explain. Don't want to spoil it. The other was when he told me with a glint in both eyes, "This is gonna be so gay!"

Well, yeah. It is. Gloriously, even hilariously so! In effect he decided to set the entire story amidst the fashion industry and models of the 1980s. Don't bother trying to figure out how. Just go with it. The result blends Shakespeare with Velvet Goldmine liberally sprinkled with Rocky Horror and even Phantom of the Paradise. The wild hair, the even wilder clothes, the patterned makeup, amazing shoes, even a red carpet which was very nearly the only set. Plus a half-mad photographer (Sebastian Munoz) who took pictures like a kind of punctuation to scenes and moments.

Photo Credit: Josh T. Ryan
It worked! In the process the whole ensemble took on re-imagined roles with the kind of gusto this sort of thing really needs to have work. Iago (Vincent Cusimano) steals it--he usually does. Honestly the whole work really seems more about him as the West's first real Antihero than about the title character. In this case he, like most of the characters, is a model (and given the opportunity a diva of the first order) and quite flaming. So much so when he even sarcastically assures the audience he does indeed have a wife. Her name's Amelia (Anna Gion) and she radiates stage presence. The entire cast does. None quite so much as Othello (Vanessa Cate) however, who comes across as the Alpha of the Pack, the one person who maintains interest with barely doing anything. She even makes her final song in a strangely beautiful surreal anthem for her crime.

Oh, did I mention this one is a little bit of  musical? Yeah, it is.

Photo Credit: Josh T. Ryan
Yeah, and a white girl is playing Othello (she did the murder scene the best I've ever seen it--the power, the lashing out at a whim, the love that survived even her Desdemona's (Kirsten Benjamin) demise. Other standouts include Hannah Mosqueda as Roderigo, Quinn Knox as Cassio, Tyler Koster as Montano and Hedy Beinert as Bianca.

Let us not forget also the live music from Kevin Van Cott, the costumes (dubbed "Othello" haute couture in the program) by Jeri Batzdorff and in this case the sound/lights operator who is a character in this production, suitably named Fineas and performed by R. Benjamin Warren. Fabulous makeup design by Natalie Hyde.

It might not be your cup of tea. Or glass of champagne. But it remained a startling nugget of joy and wonder in this writer's memory.

Othello plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30pm, until June 27, 2015 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre at 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign) North Hollywood CA 91601.  Tickets are $15 and reservations can be made at (818) 202-4120 or by going to

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