'Othello' picked for next Shakespeare Festival

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has decided on its 2008 production: “Othello,” Shakespeare’s tragedy of deception, jealousy and heartbreak in 16th-century Venice.

The drama of the Moorish military hero who, misled by the villainous Iago, murders his wife Desdemona in the belief that she has been unfaithful, has not been produced in Kansas City in decades and never before at the Shakespeare festival.

“I just think it’s time,” said artistic director Sidonie Garrett. “It’s a play I’ve long wanted to do. And it’s a play the festival should do. It’s one of the big ones.”

Garrett said no roles have been cast. She expected to hold auditions in December or January.

Since the 1970s the role of Othello has been played almost exclusively by American or British actors of African descent. There was a time when respected white actors — including Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles — played the role but Garrett said those days are long gone.

“I just think that was of it’s time,” she said. “Back in the day there was a different sensibility.” Othello, whose race is addressed explicitly in the play, is a character who feels alone, despite his popularity as a military leader and his marriage to the beautiful Venetian Desdemona. He is considered the first sympathetic black character in English literature.

“A lot of the play has to do with his feeling of isolation,” Garrett said. “This all happens at what should have been the happiest time in his life (but) he finds himself at the mercy of a vile and treacherous person who he believes is his friend.”

Scholars and theater artists have speculated through the years about Iago’s hidden motivation. One theory casts him as jealous of Desdemona because he himself was in love with Othello. But Garrett said there’s nothing complicated about Iago.

“I think Shakespeare tells us pretty clearly,” she said. “He has no motivation. He’s evil, and that’s that. I think the sociopathic personality is interesting on its own. The soulless is beyond self-reproach. It’s a freeing experience that fortunately most of us don’t have that enables him to do as much damage and hurt people as much as he can.”

Garrett said she also wants to emphasize the 16th-century image of Venice as a good party town.

“Venice was known as a licentious city,” she said. “There were a lot of courtesans. It was a pleasure capital. There was a lot of tolerance in that city. And it was easy for Othello to make that leap once it was put in his ear that it was possible that his wife was a whore.”

“Othello” will mark the festival’s 16th season and will be performed June 17 through July 6.