Back Room Shakespeare Project: Othello

Hello Readers! I’m back to Not Without My Bowler Hat! As you know, I took a few weeks off for a variety of projects. The Fourth Annual Chicago Northside Mini Maker Faire was this past weekend. I’ve been spending the past couple weeks interviewing makers all over the city and the suburbs about their work and their projects for the Faire. I really love talking to people about their work. I’m so impressed with the amount of amazing people doing incredible, creative things in Chicagoland. I’m hoping to get back into playing with electronics again and making some electronic wearables (hats and LEDS!) in the near future. Stayed tuned on that.

In addition to Maker Faire, I’ve been making amazing progress with my oral history project: It Will Keep Your Heart Alive. I’ve talked to such incredible people! You can read all about it on the blog at:

Last night, I finally got to see a performance of Back Room Shakespeare Project at the Radler in Logan Square. The idea of BRSP is that a group of actors will perform a Shakespearean play with only one rehearsal and no director. And it’s always in a bar. They wander around the bar, interact with people (stealing their drinks!), sing, stand on tables, and even die on tables. And it’s free. (Though it’s very popular, so get there early!)

I really adored it. It’s lively, fresh, and a lot of fun. I felt that this was a play for the groundlings. They did Othello, which I had never seen before. I had read it in high school. The actors who played Bianca and Iago were stupendous. Bianca’s final speech almost moved me to tears (which is about as good as any play will get). I was impressed that the actors knew most of their lines. Occasionally they’d ask for a line from the script reader but they really knew the majority of them. And I watched Desdemona get smothered to death 3 inches from my eyes on the table I ate dinner on. Very raw and immediate.

Desdemona at the Radler
Desdemona at the Radler

The Radler had very tasty food to boot. They are very big into street food on Berlin. Apparently there’s a street food market on Thursdays (I think). I love street food so it was interesting to know this about Berlin. I had a wonderful bacon wrapped kebab with cucumbers that was out of this world. It was one of the best new dishes I’d had in a while.

The play itself is a problem play for me. It’s hard to watch all the racial difficulties with it: the insults and the basic plot. Namely, the fact that Othello can’t keep his emotions in check. I remember a teacher from high school once saying that if only Othello and Hamlet switched plays, they’d be the Comedies of Othello and Hamlet instead of Tragedies. Was Shakespeare racist? It’s a similar question with The Merchant of Venice. Was Shakespeare an Anti-Semite? Recently, I heard an argument that Shakespeare wasn’t racist nor bigoted; he wrote these plays to humanize these characters. Sure the main characters are cast as “Other” but he intended to make them individuals, not caricatures. Maybe. I’m not sure I buy the argument. No matter intention, both plays unnerve me.

But there’s also the fact that the play is centered around Desdemona’s virtue. Her perceived faithlessness underscores all the violent actions. How many people died because of her perceived fault?  The more Shakespeare I see, the more I find this trend in several plays. There’s Much Ado about Nothing with the upsetting story of Hero and Claudio. Titus Andronicus kills his daughter after her horrifying ordeal. That one still irks me. She even thinks it’s a good idea in the play. Hamlet is unnerved by his mother’s decision to marry (and sleep) with his uncle. A Winter’s Tale is another play about jealousy and women’s virtue; though that one plays up the fact that the accuser is an ass. I’m sure there are more. I know that women’s virtue has been a club to beat women down with both morally and physically from time immemorial to this day.

But it is interesting that so many plays touch on it?  Was there just that much fear about women’s infidelity? Or is it simply an easy plot device ? Then again, I am reminded of Stephen Dedalus’ argument that Shakespeare’s obsession with his wife’s (supposed) infidelity factored into Hamlet. Could that be the explanation? Maybe if I had studied other writers of the era, I might have a better idea about how deep this fear was.

Anyway, the next performance of Back Room Shakespeare Project is July 27th. It’ll be the Merchant of Venice. I’ll see you there.

That’s all for now!


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