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Desdemona Unfurls Othello at Zellerbach Playhouse

Peter Sellars, Toni Morrison, and Rokia Traoré combine voices to tell the untold stories of Shakespeare's Othello.

Desdemona Unfurls Othello at Zellerbach Playhouse Desdemona Unfurls Othello at Zellerbach Playhouse

Drawing together artists from disparate points spanning the globe, the U. S. premiere of Desdemona quietly rocked the walls of on Wednesday night.

The production grew out of a challenge director Peter Sellars offered to Nobel-prize winning writer Toni Morrison, to tell the untold stories behind behind William Shakespeare’s Othello. 

Balanced powerfully atop Morrison's script and a compelling score and performance by Malian musician Rokia Traoré, Sellar’s production was mesmerizing and forceful. Through its very avoidance of wild explosions or high decibel activity, it captivated the imagination and rewarded the listener with a simplicity that belied the depth of subject.

Sellars’ Desdemona is two hours in length, but it’s reverberation will likely last for months.

That was largely due to the unparalleled performance of Tina Benko, whose Desdemona was delivered with clarity that never became sterile. Here, Morrison’s prose wasn’t so much spoken as it was danced. Waltzing off Benko’s tongue with articulation and perfect timing, the lines of prose entwined, but never tangled.

Traoré, as Barbary, Desdemona’s African nursemaid, equaled her counterpart. Never given voice in Shakespeare’s classic work, Traoré used the Barbary role and her position as composer to train the ear. In tender songs, and in the traditional Mande instrumental accompaniment, the focus was on the divine: the breath in a voice, the rasp of fingers contacting strings, and how a sung note dissolves into a guttural sob. 

Channeling Shakespeare 400 years after the fact is not a venture to be taken lightly, and Morrison digs in, building momentum as the play unfolds. Her textured script both stepped away and aligned itself with Shakespearean language. The voice of Africa called out, especially in scenes where Benko displayed her astounding range and became the voice of Othello, Cassio, and Emillie.

Given the process used — Traoré wrote music upon which Morrison based her scenes — it’s no surprise that the rhythms, tempi and tone of the script registered as music, more than spoken word.

“He forsook her and turned her ecstasy to ash,” Benko said, leaving an auditory gem and serious food for thought in nine words.

The stage, sparsely dressed by lighting designer James F. Ingalls with glass and bottle-covered light beams arranged under small lightbulbs suspended by long, thin wires in front of a white backdrop, is used to great effect; the actors casting giantess shadows behind much of the action.

If there was a message — although one hates to reduce a production with grand positions on slavery, friendship, betrayal, redemption and love to a singular note — it was peace. A simple enough place, presented in the closing encounters between the title character and ghosts from her past. The genius of Desdemona was not where it left the audience, but in how it magically, thoughtfully, arrived there.

Oct. 27, 28 and 29 at 8 p.m. 
, 101 Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Tickets: $100
Buy tickets online for Desdemona on the Cal Performances website. 

Have you seen Desdemona? What did you think? Leave your review in the comments.

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