Review: “Othello” (Babes With Blades Theatre Company)

Brianna Buckley and Sarah Liz Bell/Photo:
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Babes with Blades’ entirely female/ non-binary cast “Othello” is swift on its feet, quietly ferocious, and knits in a deeper examination of male privilege than any traditional production, just by nature of not featuring any men. Part of being a man of great prominence in Shakespeare’s Venice is maintaining a spotless reputation. Building fine, upstanding man credentials takes ages of work, performed by a dedicated wife, staff and social circle. All it can take is one word to cast doubt and bring his house of cards tumbling down. So, when an outsider steps in with a reputation audacious enough to be comparable to white men, those threatened men start work immediately to wipe him out.

For any new-comers, Shakespeare’s “Othello” is the story of military machinations, jealousy and racism that arise when a Moorish general rises in the ranks of the Venetian army over Caucasian men who find his very presence an affront to their assumed superiority. When Othello (Brianna Buckley) promotes Cassio (Meredith Ernst) to Lieutenant instead of Iago (Kathrynne Wolf), the jilted ensign puts an intricate plot in motion to ensure Othello’s downfall. At Iago and Roderigo’s (Rachel Mock) prompting, Othello suspects his new wife Desdemona (Sarah Liz Bell) of cheating on him with Cassio. The lies compound, Othello’s suspicions and rage grow, and every shred of “evidence” Iago can produce brings the general closer to his own murderous implosion.

There’s a poignance that comes from having women convey the bile that pursues Othello no matter what he does. They also enact the violence directed at women whose insistent truths fly in the faces of what supposedly honorable men have said. Director Mignon McPherson Stewart and fight director Samantha Kaufman have kept their staging stark, simple and sparse. The sword and dagger work are swift punctuations, and while a stage angle may obstruct you from the action in a moment, there’s painstaking work to make sure every seat sees some interplay. What then has room to flourish are some of the more stunning performances featured on any Chicago stage.

For exceptional takes on male characters, I tip my hat to Rachel Mock as the sullen, lovelorn and malleable Roderigo, stewing in constant regret. And, as Cassio, Meredith Ernst treats us to both a bit of definitely-NOT-drunk buffoonery, and violently shaking tremors of panic when Cassio’s good name is brought to question.

Sarah Liz Bell gives us a forthright and fearless Desdemona who is left with no voice in her marriage, or ground to stand on as her husband lashes out at her every action. Ashley Fox shines as refreshingly animated and angry Aemilia, who is beyond embittered to discover she has also been her husband Iago’s pawn.

Kim Fukawa, Kimberly Logan, and Kathrynne Wolf/Photo:
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux .

There are no two better matched for their theatrical title bout than Brianna Buckley’s Othello and Kathrynne Wolf’s Iago. Wolf’s performance trades any villainous mustache-twirling for a presence that is quiet and insidious. I was disturbed at how understanding I was of his deepening levels of personal treachery. Buckley’s Othello is a  powerful joy and despair conduit in response to both encompassing happiness, and the wrenching betrayal of everyone he holds highest in esteem. I was disturbed at how ill-at-ease even the prospect of Othello taking his loved ones’ lives made me. This “Othello” is exceptionally good at forcing you to look at your own biases in the context of what happens onstage. Babes with Blades is asking you to look inward, and that is at the heart of truly compelling theater.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Shakespeare gets a much needed transfusion of bombastic feminine energy.

Show: Othello

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue:  Factory Theater (1623 Howard St.)