Congratulations are due to Genesius Guild for staging just about the most ambitious production I’ve seen on the Lincoln Park stage – Shakespeare’s tragic tale, “Othello.”
With a uniformly strong cast, a beautiful set, intense drama, swordplay and a couple songs (plus incidental music), the 17th-century play addresses big themes that still persist today — race relations, leadership, loyalty, domestic violence, betrayal, infidelity, corruption, and lies.
“Othello” tells the tragic tale of a Black military commander who marries Desdemona, a beautiful, wealthy Venetian woman, against her father’s wishes. Calm and patient by nature, Othello is slowly tormented by one of his junior officers, Iago, who seeks revenge after Othello passed him over for a military promotion.
Over the course of the two-hour and 45-minute play, Iago slowly stokes jealousy, convincing Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful. By the end of the play, Iago has succeeded in his machinations but leaves a trail of bloodshed and death behind him.
Widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, “Othello” is a fascinating character study of a true villain, but in Genesius Guild’s production (directed by Teresa Moore), Iago is colorfully played by Charles Budan as an outwardly genial, boot-licking assistant – a relentless, conniving serpent with a smile, a ruthless iron fist under a velvet glove.
As audience members, we are able to see Iago’s cold-blooded machinations and villainy, but to the other characters in the play he appears to be a good, honest man. Iago tells the audience of his scheme, arranges for Cassio (who was chosen over Iago for the promotion) to lose his position as lieutenant, and gradually insinuates to Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful.
Making use of a handkerchief belonging to Desdemona and found by Emilia (Iago’s wife, whom he disdains) when Othello has unwittingly dropped it, Iago persuades Othello that Desdemona has given the handkerchief to Cassio as a symbol of love. That “napkin” assumes monumental importance that far outweighs its actual weight and leads to the downfall of so many.
This solid, confidently acted production, which is sponsored by the Moline Foundation, features a mix of Genesius Guild veterans and newcomers to Genesius’ stage. “Othello” stars Anthony Mitchell — a 23-year-old Rock Island native making his first appearance on the Genesius stage — in the title role.
He is excellent in both capturing the poise, honor and dignity of the part, and his bitter frustrations when confronted with Iago’s claims. He nails the legendary Moor’s calm, commanding manner.
Mitchell has played Joseph Asagai in Playcrafters’ July 2022 production of “A Raisin in The Sun,” which featured Teresa Moore as Mama Lena, and “Othello” is his first Shakespeare.
He has wonderful chemistry with the Genesius spitfire as Desdemona, Olivia Akers. The Oklahoma City University student (who also had a lead role in June’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona”) reveals winning affection for Othello, a refreshing independent streak, shows off a nice singing voice at one point, and steadfastly defends herself against the accusations of infidelity.
It’s appropriate that Olivia’s father, Tom Akers, also gives an imposing, paternal performance as the Duke. She’s just going into her junior year of college.
Budan (who was Romeo in last year’s “Romeo & Juliet” at Lincoln Park) is remarkable as the scheming, evil Iago. It’s worth noting the trio of leads here are so young – Budan just graduated from Pleasant Valley High School and is headed to New York University this fall. His playful “Othello” role reminded me personality-wise of Neil Patrick Harris.
The superb “Othello” cast includes Cole McFarren as Cassio, Mischa Hooker as Roderigo, Kaylee Gundling as Emilia, Guy Cabell as Brabantio and Shannon Ryan as Bianca.
Genesius specializes in free classical drama. Founded in 1956, the group performs Greek drama, Greek comedy, the works of Shakespeare, and other classical authors every weekend throughout the summer at Lincoln Park, 1120 40th St., Rock Island.
The operatic “Othello” (no wonder the great Italian master, Giuseppe Verdi, set it to music in 1887) continues this Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. For more information about the Guild, visit its website HERE.