Ubuntu’s ‘Othello’ a language of love

Othello (Ronald Kirk) embraces Desdemona (Emilie Whelan) while Iago (Michael Navarra) reacts. (photo by Colin Blattel)

Michael Navarra is playing Iago in Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” It is a role that is both mesmerizing and intimidating. But for this particular production, there is a factor that makes the dynamic special.

That is in regards to the stage he gets to perform on, or shall we say, in. For many theatre companies, there is a certain amount of the budget dedicated to each component of a production. A set is only one of those components. But for the folks at Ubuntu, they have a very special set in which to do their work, one that would surely break the bank at other theatre companies.

“We are doing the show at a place that sells Persian rugs,” said Navarra. “We talk about how we have a million dollar set.”

Ubuntu takes a very unique approach to how they create theatre. First of all, they don’t have one. And that’s because each play they produce is site specific. In the case of Othello, the choice was made to perform in a vast Persian rug shop in West Berkeley.

For show director and assistant artistic director Michael Moran, this is done with Othello’s religion in mind, a religion he converted from before the play begins. It also gave Moran the belief that, because the play is set mostly in Cyprus, an island country off the coasts of Syria and Turkey, this locale could be perfect.

“Not only is Othello black, he is a moor, and before the play he converts from Islam to Christianity,” said Moran. “In Shakespeare’s time, the word moor was a catch all to everyone in the Ottoman Empire, and represented a blind spot to that culture.

“Because the play is mostly set in Cyprus, we thought a Persian rug shop could work.”

This choice gives the creative team a chance for a more total theatre experience. With a set that surrounds the audience, it puts the audience in the middle of the action. And a play such as Othello, where language and high stakes encompass all pieces of the drama, the location certainly informs much of the action.

“It’s incredibly exciting to have the audience right there with us, and we are right with the audience,” said Navarra. “It is something you don’t always get in your traditional theatre spaces.

“This is my favorite kind of theatre not only to act in, but to watch.”

On the acting side, the title role falls in the hands of Ronald Kirk. He and Moran were graduate school classmates, both receiving their Master of Fine Arts degrees from UC San Diego. So when it came time for casting, Moran did not look far before putting Othello into Kirk’s hands.

The responsibility of playing a role as deep as Othello can be overwhelming, but for Kirk, that is part of the thrill.

“The first thing I did when I got cast as Othello was I had a cold drink,” said Kirk. “After that, I dove right into the text to figure out all of these old words and the intention that Shakespeare wrote the play.

“The play is so big with so much gorgeous language that I get to chew on along with the emotions of the play. There is real bodily pleasure in experiencing that, which is why the play is still fresh. It doesn’t feel stale.”

Navarra is having the same experience as he tackles the supposedly loyal comrade of Othello, a man who tasks himself with plotting Othello’s ultimate descent into seething rage and murderous jealousy.

“The play is all about the language, and that’s very challenging,” said Navarra. “I try to put in as much work as possible to understand what I’m saying as well as what’s being said.

“The way the play is written makes it hard to follow the train of thought, which is a huge challenge. You have to put in the work and make it make sense.”

As the director, Moran has to look at the larger piece of the puzzle aside from the language. And for him, that means shaping the play to make it as alive and urgent as possible.

“I think what’s tricky about the play is that it’s easy to read it as a revenge story, and I don’t think it is,” said Moran. “If it’s just about how one person is getting back at another, that can make it sort of flat.

“It’s a love story. He has love for Desdemona, love for Iago, and those characters give Othello a different kind of depth. That’s sort of what we’ve been exploring.”

For those who make theatre in the Bay Area, the exploration is always more fun when a million dollar set is part of the equation.


Ubuntu Theater Project presents William Shakespeare’s “Othello”
June 10th – 26th

All performances take place at Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company
1326 9th St (Between Gilman and Camelia Streets)
Berkeley, CA 94710
Tickets range from $15 – $35
For tickets, visit www.ubuntutheaterproject.com

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